August 19, 2007 § 14 Comments

Standing in line for the bathroom at La Banquise, drunk off my ass and enjoying A’s birthday immensely.  Softly, the woman behind me says hello, forgetting my name but remembering the course I taught five years ago.  I ask her how she is and, without hesitation, she tells me: she hated our university and left for another, where she is now finishing a Master’s degree in art therapy.  Smiling, I congratulate her and wish her well, and as the bathroom door opens she looks up at me and says:

“You were such a good teacher.”   

I have just enough grace to thank her before I take my turn, leaning against the door as I lock it behind me.  Turning, I see my face in the mirror and am reminded of what it is all for: teaching, which is, for me, if not for the university, the scholarly work that matters most, and which comes to me as easily as pissing after a night full of beer.  As I unbutton my jeans, I promise myself that I will remember this, even after tomorrow’s hangover fades.

§ 14 Responses to Reminder

  • Alston says:

    which comes to me as easily as pissing after a night full of beer

    I gotta use that one soon.

  • Sorry Vila – that was me who sprayed pee on the toilet seat before you got to it. I just hope that you were savouring the moment too much to mind.

  • Siobhan Curious says:

    One thing to remember is that for every student/former student who says this to your face, there are many, many more who are thinking it but never get to tell you.

  • TV DiSKO says:

    I’d agree with Siobhan. There was much to hate about McGill, but in my time there, I found the lecturers for the most part on the ball and inspiring and I like to think that I at least contributed to it in some way. Of course, there were always a few duds, but generally, it was a good place to do an Arts degree and I think I took that on board with my own teaching.

    Here now at Vic, it’s something else. Teaching is an afterthought, as we’ve become low-level administrators and the university is increasingly putting emphasis on publishing and research, due to a system of review much like the RAE in the UK (without, of course, the funds to back that demand up). I do my best and I’m keen to think that most of the students seem to enjoy my courses, and those led by my colleagues. What we have to struggle against here is a tendency towards arrogant ignorance, a lack of curiousity, and a deeply felt sense entitlement (McGill had that too, but this is a different species). That and the fact that many of our students are working two jobs to make ends meet, so that for them uni is secondary (what you may not know is that there is no vetting process for university in NZ. Even if you dropped out of highschool, if you’re over twenty, you can get into uni). Makes life as an academic interesting and exhausting at the same time.

  • Sal says:

    Is there really that much widespread disdain for McGill? I guess I was looking through rose-coloured glasses when I was the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed first year MA student. Hmmmm. So I suppose that I’m not the only one who fantasized about defacating in some small dark corner of the Arts building basement on a swealtering Friday afternoon in July, after all the custodial staff have left for the weekend….?

  • Vila H. says:

    Alston: Please feel free.

    Alison: Luckily, I always look before I leap, even when loaded.

    Siobhan: I suppose so. Still, I’m amazed that she remembered after all this time, and quite touched as well.

    TV DiSKO: (Sighs.) Where to begin? I suppose with the extent to which teaching has been devalued as a scholarly activity, which students manage to suss out fairly quickly. Also, there is the adoption of corporate management techniques by university administrators, which it sounds like NZ is at the forefront of and which leads to the worst kind of pseudo-productivity. You can’t educate on the cheap, no matter how thoroughly you bureaucratize the process, and you can’t admit ever-increasing numbers of underprepared students without providing the resources they need to learn well. Unfortunately, the problem starts long before they arrive at the gates of the university, by which time it is, for some, too late.

    If you get a chance, check out Declining By Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, an excellent PBS documentary about the issue. You’ll find a show synopsis here.

    Sal: By no means.

  • Even working in a institution that is challenging the framework of acceptable higher education it still comes down to teaching. Whatever the method. If it requires the encouragement of destructive ingenuity (c.f. the building of a “potato cannon”) to prompt reflection on the principles of physics and their historical origins, where’s the harm? (Other than that caused by the cannon, of course…)

    What’s the old saying: “You can’t make an undergrad without breaking a few things.” Limits are always a good place to start. Then again, I guess it’s easy to break them when talking about the origins of the universe.

    Alas, with apologies to the above commentator: There are some very different personal and institutional approaches to teaching out there, and not all of them are failing…

  • Vila H. says:

    Um, which above commentator?

  • Both you and TV Disko point to the social underpinnings of decaying educational frameworks. I guess I was responding to that by remembering what teaching is all about — inspiration and imagination — and how this things can help overcome some of the logistical limits. I know, again with the limits.

    Also, I just had a really positive teaching experience at a school in its infancy, without even the hint of a solid infrastructure, and it made me think a little. Maybe you can “educate on the cheap” in some ways.

    That doesn’t make the intense inequalities of the educational experience any less upsetting. But teachers, above all, need to keep in mind how personal and particular the educational process can be. Maybe less pretense to objectivity is required.

    Or maybe now I’m really babbling.

  • Awesome. A comment on education and it has a big typo in the second line. I wanted to say these things. :)

  • Vila H. says:

    Typos notwithstanding, you make an excellent point. But let me ask you something. You teach at a quasi-private university, right? How many students are in your class?

  • Eleven.

    I get your point. Loud and clear. But I’ve been in final year seminars (which is what this class was for these students) with less people. It’s a factor — again, sadly, one among many. Whatever the venue, I hark back to the original point of your post: I empathize fully with your sense of the value (and rewards — ephemeral as they are) of teaching as the backbone of any academic or scholarly career…

  • Vila H. says:

    And I, in turn, will grant you this: if you’re crafty, you can find ways to encourage inspiration and imagination under almost any circumstances. The course I was recently complimented on had an enrollment of 202 students, and hell if I didn’t find ways to make it interesting in spite of that fact. (I do have some performance experience under my belt, after all…) Mind you, if I had to teach six courses a year like it, every year, and do research, and perform admin duties, and publish, I’d feel exactly the exhaustion TV DiSKO described in his comment. More to the point, given the same conditions, how could any student feel anything other than alienated from the learning process?

    Sadly, intimacy has become a commodity in virtually every sphere of life, and in education most of all. A truly radical approach to pedagogy would first demand its democratization, knowing that all else follows. Siobhan recently wrote a great post about this very point, so I’ll let her take it from here…

  • zura says:

    I love encountering honest compliments in this fashion. It means so much.

    I *despised* the administration of McGill, but did enjoy my time there. There were some classes and lecturers that were indeed inspiring.

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