Three veteran teachers find new lessons about our life’s work
By Paula Marantz Cohen
Every few months, two of my colleagues and I meet for lunch. We think of this as a way to catch up on each other’s lives, but inevitably we talk about teaching. Together we have more than 80 years of teaching experience, but we still have a lot of questions and anxieties. Freud called psychoanalysis the impossible profession; Gail Rosen, Robert Watts, and I would say this about teaching, though we wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. Gail has a J.D. degree and worked for a law firm for a few years; Robert worked as a reporter for a major newspaper; and I worked in public relations in the transition out of graduate school. We all came to teaching as the vocation that fit us better than anything else.
All three of us have large, exuberant personalities, which is both what drew us to teaching and what keeps us unbalanced in our roles. We sometimes say we envy our more sober peers who can deliver a lesson without exploding into laughter, exclaiming about something a student says, or digressing on a subject that suddenly strikes us as more important. And yet, if we were like that, we wouldn’t need to teach. We would be perfectly happy in any number of other professions that don’t permit laughter, exclamation, or digression.
Our lunches always seen to revolve around some specific issue regarding our classes. You’d think after so many years, we’d have this stuff down—but no, when we talk there’s a sense that we were just hatched into the profession.
“I’ve decided to tackle the stuff the kids don’t know right off the bat this term,” says Robert. “I’m going straight to the writing of introductions. They can’t do them—and I want to get them on the right track right away.”
We talk about introductions and how to teach them.
“I don’t know about these hybrid courses,” says Gail, referring to the mix of online and face-to-face teaching that has become a staple in the freshman writing program. “I like the time-flexibility, but it takes the same amount of time to prepare, and you’re on-call 24 hours a day, so, in some ways, it’s harder.”
“It’s true,” notes Robert. “I’m still trying to get the balance right.”
“I thought you weren’t going to teach hybrids anymore,” I say. Robert had told me last year that he wanted to take advantage of his strengths as a teacher and that face-to-face teaching was one of those.
“Well, I haven’t entirely given up yet. I’m still trying to fine-tune how I do it, and I’m starting to get the hang of it. I may even try fully online again [he had taught a course entirely online a year ago and didn’t like it]. Val loves online classes, so there must be a way to do it right.” (Val Fox is another respected colleague.)
We go on to talk about the latest blackboard software—used for managing functions like posting assignments, and online discussion and grading. I complain that I just learned the last blackboard software and now the university has replaced it with a new system. I am nostalgic for the chalk blackboard of old.
“What are your teaching goals?” I ask. Everyone is being told that they have to meet benchmarks for their classes. “Can you say: ‘Get students to think and write better?’”
“No, you have to be specific.” Gail consults the guidelines where halfway down the page one of the goals reads as follows:
Students will use writing to embrace complexity and think about open-ended questions. Assessment/Deliverable: At least one writing assignment will be assessed partly based on how well students use writing as a tool to think deeply about a complex issue or question.
We laugh. The language is irritating. But “assessment” is a buzzword at all levels of the university. The people responsible for these guidelines are simply using the mandated vocabulary. We talk about what we think can and can’t be assessed.
“I’m trying to incorporate some of the assignments from the freshman core syllabus,” notes Gail. “Some work, some don’t.” What characterizes both Robert and Gail as teachers is their skepticism about ‘new’ initiatives (usually, not so new) and their extraordinary “gameness”—their willingness to always try what is proposed.
We look at the clock. It’s time for Gail to go to class.
“Good luck,” I say. Even veteran teachers can always use some of that.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.