Class Notes

On Being Awesome

Sometimes we encounter the quality in curious places

By Paula Marantz Cohen | August 6, 2013


Now and then I’m surprised to hear a student extravagantly praise a teacher who I think is a fool.

Here’s an example. The student and I are chatting about her schedule and she mentions a certain course.

“Oh, who do you have for that?” I ask.

“X,” she replies. “He’s awesome.”

I am pulled up short. Having heard X babble on at department meetings for years, I am able to say many things about him, but awesome isn’t one of them.

Over time, I have refined a response when a student makes this sort of surprising statement: “Really?” I say. “It sounds like I should get to know him better.”

This strikes me as technically accurate. I may in fact have known X for 10, 20, even 30 years, but clearly I have missed something. I have no inkling what could be awesome about him.

In the past, these encounters with students left me not just mystified but annoyed. By no stretch could I imagine that X is a good teacher, much less an awesome one. Yet this student, who apparently has a high opinion of me, also thinks highly of this professor, indeed finds him awesome. How unfortunate, I used to think—poor student, to be so benighted.

Lately, however, I’ve adopted the Wizard of Oz school of pedagogy. Any professor who can inspire a student, whatever other qualities he might have, is to be commended as awesome.

I also realize that it’s possible that I truly missed something in my colleague. He may, in certain contexts, be awesome, hard as this is for me to believe. When I think this, I also think that I really should get to know him better. In a few instances, I’ve actually tried, though as yet, I have yet to report a change of mind.

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