CLASSROOM EPIPHANIES

thinking

When I passed my flight test to become a Certified Flight Instructor, the FAA examiner turned to me and said, “OK, John, you are all set to go. Now your first 10 students will teach you how to fly.” The same has been true in my university career.  It is a cliche that teachers learn as much or more than their students, but there is more than a modicum of truth in this. A provocative question or a lively discussion can inspire ideas in me that I had never known before, and in many classes I heard myself saying things that I found surprising. I have often thought, “Where in the world did those words come from?” Sometimes I even found myself rushing back to my office after a class to take notes on what I or my students had just said before I lost the ideas. I have already written about the daily gradual illumination that teaching offers in this blog’s essay on Teaching as Improvisation. In this essay, I would like to share a few thunderclaps that changed how I taught, how I thought, and how I was in the world. Interestingly, the experiences I am about to relate left me with stimulating questions rather than answers, and these questions have remained with me as vital catalysts during my subsequent 45 years of university teaching. It is my hope that you might find these experiences and insights transferable from the classroom to the everyday living of life.

What and Why am I Teaching?
I began teaching at St. Michael’s College in Vermont in 1967. My early attitude toward teaching embodied what Paolo Freire calls the banking method: I had knowledge the student didn’t have; I deposited it into the student’s mind; the student regurgitated it on a test, and I rewarded him or her with a grade. One of my earliest and brightest students said one day that I was not teaching them Philosophy. I was teaching them how to play the game called student. I felt a jolt of recognition and an almost desperate longing not to be that kind of a teacher. My external behavior might not have immediately changed, but my internal landscape was shaken. I began seriously to ask myself what I thought I was doing when I entered a classroom. What was my intention? What would make the next 90 minutes valuable for my students and for myself? I continue to ask these questions today, as they nurture an ever-deepening awareness of the meaning of teaching.

What do I Think I Know?
My formal training had been in Greek and Medieval Philosophy, and my first teaching covered the years from 400-1400 CE: St. Augustine to William of Ockham. For a good five years I taught the words of these great thinkers with confident authority. One day, however, I was teaching St. Augustine’s explanations concerning predestination. Essentially, I understood him to say that God knows the future because His reality is eternal Presence, but that does not determine the future. After listening for a while, a student said, “I don’t get it.” I was shaken by my next thought: “Neither do I.” I had been mouthing these words for years, and I suddenly realized I had no idea what I was talking about. It sounded like nonsense to me, and I realized that I had been teaching students and grading them on ideas of which I had little grasp. Moreover, I also realized in that moment that I really didn’t care about these ideas. That traditional Western God had become more and more abstract, dry, and remote. He was way too masculine and intellectual. My soul longed for a gentler, kinder experience of Divinity.

I therefore began to ask myself why I was teaching what I was teaching. Why should I teach ideas that made no sense and held little meaning for me? Why should I require students to read books that had no fire for me? Why should I require students to memorize answers to questions that neither they nor I had asked?

These questions have informed my teaching for over four decades. My interests shifted away from the medieval period and back to Plato and the Greeks, forward to Existentialism, and to the Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Zen. (In fairness, there are fine thinkers, such as Matthew Fox, who write about St. Thomas Aquinas with sensitivity and intelligence. My point is simply that I personally find more “juice” in other ways of thought.) At any rate, I think it was in that class that I began the slow process of becoming a lover of wisdom.

Lightning Strikes
After  a few years of teaching, however, I was honored with a grant from the Carnegie foundation.  I was to have one of my classes video-taped, and then bring it to Boston for a week’s seminar with 10 other honored teachers from around the country.  Throughout the week, I saw many examples of magnificent teaching.  On Friday morning, it was my turn.  I had chosen a lecture on Sartre’s play “The Flies,” one of my favorite platforms for waxing eloquent.   But 30 seconds into my video, I could have died. I wanted to crawl under the table. There I was for all to see: “Mr. Hotshot Professor.  Mr. Ego.”  I can’t express the pain of that moment, as I saw myself so clearly self-involved as a flashy performer, but a truly lousy teacher.  The experience was so painful for everyone that the leaders of the seminar mercifully turned it off after just a few minutes.  Everyone was most kind, but equally clear that I had some changing to do.

That was the last straw.  From that very day, as I crossed the threshold of my classrooms, I reminded myself in a nearly audible whisper, “It’s not about me. If Love is missing, this will be a waste of time.”  I’m pretty sure that things started getting better.

5 thoughts on “CLASSROOM EPIPHANIES

  1. Hariod Brawn

    ‘I was shaken by my next thought: “Neither do I.” I had been mouthing these words for years, and I suddenly realized I had no idea what I was talking about.’

    This is precisely what happened to an Englishman [Richard Randall] in 1954, and who is referred to in the article linked to below firstly as William Purfurst and also as Kapilavaddho Bhikkhu – R.R. was his final name following disrobing from an order of monks.

    As a visiting academic in 1954, Purfurst was giving a talk to students at a college in Oxford on Theravadin Buddhism. Half way through his talk he suddenly realised that he wasn’t practising what, in effect, he was preaching, and that therefore, his knowledge of dhamma was purely intellectual and not experiential. He closed his notes and announced to the students ‘ladies and gentlemen, I am a fraud’, promptly then walking out.

    Here is the story of what happened following this, and after enduring several weeks of a resultant emotional distress in London:

    http://www.chezpaul.org.uk/buddhism/articles/kapilvdo.htm

    Hariod Brawn.

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    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Thank you for this story, Hariod. It reinforces the truth for me that there is a great sisterhood and brotherhood of wayfarers. It has been said that the greatest journey a person must take is from the head to the heart. Those of us who, through grace and good fortune and good friendships, have embarked upon that journey are fortunate indeed.

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    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      I’m happy you enjoyed my stint in the slammer, Julie. It was actually an amazing two years. I am interested in your ideas for expanding your teaching. Any details yet?

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  2. Eileen

    There was a huge shift in the focus of teaching between the 1950’s and the 1970’s from teaching content to teaching students. I married out of Rice University (Institute) my senior year in 1958. In my 3 + years there I had just one professor that not only held my interest, but challenged me to think. His exams always forced us to go further than the material we had studied. I had never learned something new from an exam before. Unfortunately, I hadn’t asked many questions about life yet on my own and his was the only course that required that. His field was History of the South, which held little significance for me at the time. I eventually returned to college at the age of 35 after my fifth child. I went to a Nashville night school extension of the University of Tennessee. Not a particularly prestigious school, but taught by many young graduate students at Vanderbilt who were coming out of the question everything mindset of the 60’s and 70’s. I drove 100 miles round trip at night in all kinds of weather and sometimes had to take a preschooler with me. I never missed a class and was terribly frustrated if a teacher didn’t come. It was a totally mind blowing, come alive experience and I loved every moment of it.

    But my experiences actually teaching taught me more about myself and human nature and learning styles than any class ever had. And I was just teaching first and second grade!

    I cannot adequately express how touched and grateful I am for your honesty and humility.
    Though they feel like humiliating failures at the time, the victories in life are when we recognize a need to change and manage it. And being willing to share those experiences gives us a chance to free other minds and hearts. Thank you.

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