This semester I’m part of a faculty learning cohort meeting regularly to “enhance courses in our teaching repertoire to better support and promote well-being in our students and in ourselves.” One of the first assignments was to write a short statement on what gives us joy in our teaching. Here’s what I turned in.
The psychanalyst Jacques Lacan—who never met a pun he didn’t like—said that teachers are people “who are supposed to know.” “Supposed” as in required—we’re supposed to know stuff, that’s our job. But also “supposed” as in imagined or projected—other people suppose that we know stuff and we build our identity on that belief. It’s the task of a lifetime to learn that what seems like a rule is in fact a fantasy, and a disabling one at that.
I like knowing things, and showing others that I know them, and helping them learn those things—yet “playing expert” is also the part of teaching that stresses me out the most.
How to push back against the idea of expertise as a kind of omnipotence?
Teaching is a way for me to be seen—which for reasons of temperament and family origin has always been a struggle. While teaching I feel, visible, viable, worthy. The joy of teaching thus inheres in the way that filling that role paradoxically allows me to perform myself. When I am at my best as a teacher I am my best self. I am funny and warm and generous: the joy of teaching is that it allows me to unabashedly affirm these values of care and concern toward others.
If I can’t be unabashed, if I feel constrained (if the students seem bored or hostile, or I imagine them that way) then I tighten up, I feel dried up and useless, a little mean even.
When I’m really teaching I’m sometimes expounding—being the expert makes me anxious but also fills me with a geeky thrill—but mostly I’m leading by example. If I can be loose and warm and curious and engaged then I can transmit those qualities to students, which matters to me because these qualities are the preconditions for critical learning.
So far I’ve had the classroom in mind. But everything I’ve said applies to less formal situations too: the conversation in the hall; the email exchange about a paper draft; the back-and-forth of a tutorial. These non-classroom situations make it clear to me that what I love about teaching is mentoring. The joy comes not so much explaining something, and definitely not from justifying my responses to student work, but in attending to another person and thereby allowing them to flourish. As the indigenous writer Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “all flourishing is mutual.” In such moments, there’s no supposing at all. That moment could be difficult or charged and might not be fun. But it is always a space of joy.