Sunday, April 15, 2007

Traveling with Students

In the flurry (fury?) of activity following my return from London, I’ve not been able to post nearly as many of my promised posts as I’d hoped, and yet they’re all still in the back of my mind. The one post that I really did want to get up here, though, was one on the general dynamics of traveling with students.

I’ve not processed my entire thinking about the trip by any means, and I imagine that I may be working on this post over a few days, so forgive me if my thoughts ramble.

On an earlier post, TR commented that I was "a complete hero" to take on something like this, and while I secretly (or not-so-secretly) adore the fact that some of these students think of me as more than just a regular professor, I can’t deny that this trip, with these students, was incredibly rewarding for me. Some of the reasons why.

Learning from my students: In my statement of teaching philosophy (which I need to revisit before long), I insist that the classroom must be a space in which all parties are open to learning, student and professor alike. But let’s be honest, finding ways in which we learn from our students, especially in lower level courses or courses in our areas of specialty, is often grasping at straws. Sure, a student will occasionally ask an intriguing question sometimes, but usually the subject matter is bound by the course description, limited time, and the professor’s expertise.

In London, there was a lot of time to spare, and a lot less stricture on appropriate topics, so several students at different times felt free to talk about the things they know about, which in some ways was not unexpected, but in some ways was incredibly surprising. I spent a great deal of time with the one male student on the trip, Nick, who is has an activist’s sensibility on a pretty politically apathetic campus. We discussed his interest in Marxism, his reading of Chomsky and of radical historian Howard Zinn, with whose work I am only passingly familiar, and his thoughts on the usefulness of counter-culture in a hyper-corporate age. (I might note that Zinn himself, recounting his involvement in the Civil Rights movement while a professor a Spelman, called them “the most interesting, exciting, most educational years for me. I learned more from my students than my students learned from me." Right on.) As interested as I am in resistant politics, my reading in those areas is only cursory, and Nick, as a sophomore, is already reading deeply and thoughtfully on them. I was thrilled to watch him engage in open thoughtful political discussion (not diatribe) with anyone who wanted—me, fellow students, even our surprisingly game tour guide).

But I learned more than just this. I learned about how a college student deals with the death of a parent, I learned about antiquing, I learned about how open-minded students can be towards things they don’t understand (despite our usual inklings to the contrary). I learned a great deal about the town I’ve been living in for less than two years. I learned a little about music (both technique and trends), about the milieu of the university beyond my department, about what students think of me and my colleagues (more on that below).

Constant teaching: So my nightmares about this trip involved New Scotland Yard, hospitals, and frantic phone calls, none of which came true. My less intense anxieties were about students taking too much advantage of the night life of a big city, and similarly, this wasn’t an issue at all. In fact, if anything, my students stuck closer to me than I thought they would, and sometimes closer than I would’ve liked.

That said, while I would’ve liked for my first trip to London to be with Willow—we are well-matched as travel partners—traveling with only students was a nice second choice. As much as I badly missed my family, and am considering trying to bring them on a future such trip, I never felt that I was compromising one party for the other, that my time with Willow or the kids was suffering because of my obligations to my students, or that my ability to be a fantastic teacher on this trip was diluted by the allure of time with the family.

No, here I was teaching almost constantly, in some way or another. Of course there were the obvious ways—talking about the plays we were seeing, explaining (and re-explaining) the paper assignment on tourism, cultural capital and the culture industry, or giving background information on Virginia Woolf while we walked through Bloomsbury, or the writers buried in Poet’s Corner.

But there were other ways too—talking with Nick was really a two way street, and as we walked out of the National Portrait Gallery, I went on a ramble about the strange and contradictory, self-congratulatory cultural work being done there (you know, the standard monarchy worship, a tribute to the fashion industry, an exhibit on the faces of abolitionism and civil rights, a collections of visitors to London from around the globe, etc.). And while Nick has as sharp a critical mind as any 20-year-old I know, he said something like “That’s why I wanted to come here with you—I never would’ve put all of that together myself.” Now first of all, that’s just nice to hear, but it’s also important to hear, to be reminded how much stock students put in my words…no they’re not blank slates, but they soak stuff up like sponges before they start to digest, and accept or reject ideas.

The discussions I had following the production of Attempts on her Life were particularly fascinating. The play itself is something of a fragmentary, sometimes ironic, sometimes deadly serious, wide-ranging critique of what John Kenneth Galbraith has termed “The Culture of Contentment.” Every one of our group was a target of satire in the play, as tourists, as Americans, as middle-class consumers, as aspiring intellectuals. The play was really hard to find accessible for most of the students, but I left the theatre literally giddy—I have mentioned before and will repeat that this was an incredibly exciting theatre experience for me. So I talked through with them what I thought the play was doing, I talked through what I thought the value was of theatre that was baffling to much of its audience. Importantly, I was reminded over and over again what I’ve lost as a professional student of the theatre, which is an ability take in with an open mind material whose ideas I find troubling, or whose form I find unappealing (or more likely, uninspiring)—again, talk of teaching returns to what I learned.

The fact that these conversation took places in cabs, in museums, on the underground (another subject which I found myself teaching intensely: subway etiquette and survival), over a drink, at lunch, and not in a classroom, somehow made this all the more rewarding. These students were engaging this material on their own terms, as they wanted to—they were asking me questions on the fly, rather than shuffling in morosely at 8:30 every Tuesday, and there was no pressure to fill space with this stuff, when talk of Harrod’s or Fortum’s or Hamley’s or our hotel, or whatever was equally available.

Now, I know I like the sound of my own voice, and oftentimes my tactic was to assume an absurdly false arrogance to hide how much this attention was actually inflating my ego. But the amount and nature of the constant casual pedagogy was exciting and rewarding enough to me to last me a long long time.

Being a human in front of the students: One of the plays we saw, Alan Bennet’s The History Boys (a terrible play which has received a great deal of praise), featured a quote that went something like this: “One of the hardest things for students is to learn that their teachers are human, and one of the hardest thing for teachers is not to show them.” Bullshit.

OK, so in my most self-critical moments, I believe I have issues with professor student boundaries. No I’ve never done anything that amounts to unethical—never crossed that all important physical line, stayed generally out of the way of their personal lives, etc. But I do have this persistent, low-level desire to be their friend. Now again, I’ve never done anything that crosses boundaries, and I’m pretty clear to them that being a friendly teacher doesn’t mean I give all A’s (a knowing nod to TR’s provocative recent post on the subject is due).

But in London, I regularly crossed lines I don’t usually cross at home. I cursed casually. I discussed politics without real regard for the touchy issue of respecting the differences of the classroom—which is to say I disagreed openly when I heard a political position I didn’t like, and agreed openly when I heard those I did like. I occasionally shared a drink or two with students. I talked about my personal life, and while I didn’t reveal anything deep or dark, I talked about bad break-ups and good relationships as I would with friends.

The weirdest part, and one I’m still not sure about, was the degree to which the students wanted to talk about my colleagues in front of me. I heard who they loved, who they hated, why they found people intimidating, why they found people easy. It was like eavesdropping on a really undiluted RateMyProfessors conversation. Whenever possible, I tried to defend those I knew to be fine faculty members, or say, “I don’t know that person very well.” I didn’t however, do a very good job of saying, “I really shouldn’t be here for this conversation,” or “This makes me a biiiit uncomfortable.” Judge me if you will.

The point is, I spent a lot of my time functioning with my students as a human, not as a professor, and they seemed to spend a lot of time functioning around me as regular people, and not students. Not surprisingly, I found I really liked most of them, and didn’t dislike any of them. And I think most of them liked me, as a person.

Still all of this adds up to the following acknowledgment: I didn’t act very professional on this trip, and I’m not sure that’s a terrible thing. I acted like a person, and for the most part, I think it meant that I had a great trip in London while my students had a great trip in London. I doubt I will duplicate the same kind of all-hang-out mentality with future groups, and I really don’t think I damaged anyone or my rapport with anyone. But that nagging doubt remains.

(Cue sweeping violin music.)

That nagging doubt, of course, is overshadowed by the overall sense that this was a fantastic trip, and if I am in any way a hero to these students, they are kinda heroes to me too.


Bardiac said...

Sounds like a fantastic trip in all ways. And seriously, students need to learn that their instructors are human. And it's very healthy for us to be reminded how much our human students can teach us.

Sisyphus said...

Ohh, that sounds like such a wonderful experience! When I went to England we were left much more on our own and I don't think I ever got to have those casual type conversations with my profs.

Can I make a request for some discussion of your teaching philosophy statement and their general usefulness/uselessness? Some job apps ask for them; my profs here pay no attention to the concept, and the info on "how to" or education websites is painfully generic and stupid.

Matt said...

It sounds to me as if you went from being a teacher to being a mentor.