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T-Minus One And Counting: The Radical Returns To Work

January 22, 2007, 8:02 pm

We arrived back in Shoreline last night around midnight, after traveling for about twenty-five hours, which is how long it takes to get back to New England from Kauai normally, and then you have to add the extra time it takes when USAir and America West merge and re-book all your tickets through different hubs and with strange layovers. Then there is the bonus of extra stress added when, although your beloved travel agent (N) has carefully booked you into aisle seats, upon the re-booking you are put in middle seats. But never mind! We are home, the house sitter did a great job, and Sailor the dog is well and happy. I am a little jet-lagged, but not fatally so. And BTW, 20 fully conscious hours is exactly what it takes to read Eilen Boris’s excellent history of sweated labor in the home, “Home to Work,” which I am teaching in a week or so.

Tomorrow I begin my labors at Zenith anew, although slowly – catching up to new classroom technology with one of our ITS people at 11, and talking to a couple advisees reassigned from other people in the afternoon. Probably I will end up spending most of my day sorting the mail, and figuring out what I am supposed to do in the next two weeks: I know there are job candidates coming in, that there is a tenure case, and there are undoubtedly tasks I have completely forgotten existed. Then Wednesday, I teach my first lecture class in two years.

I have been trying to think about what exactly to say to them – what would mean getting off to the right start. When I was a new teacher, I used to place a heavy emphasis on Going Over the Syllabus to see if there were any Questions. There never were. Of course not – they didn’t know anything about the course yet, or the course materials, or me – by the time they developed questions or serious reservations about what I had to offer, it was probably too late to shift to another course. Or if anyone asked a question it would be in the realm of: “Um – there are two three to five page papers? So, does that mean we should write three or, um, five?” Really. Even at a fancy school like Zenith. And I would usually deliver some kind of a serious answer, like, “Very often a shorter paper can be a better paper; blah, blah, blah….” Which did not answer the question, since the question was, “Are you trying to fool me into thinking three will be ok, when the people who write five will all get A’s??” I am sure I beat that topic to death until their tiny eyes glazed over, and I never even knew it.

As I became a better known and a more popular member of the faculty, my agenda changed and I trimmed my little walk through the syllabus, not because I realized it was a waste of time, but because I would walk into rooms packed with students who were hoping to enroll sitting and standing on every available flat space. Thus, usually the first class had to also accomplish what I would impolitely call “weeding” (remember, weeds are only flowers by another name!) In other words, the class is capped at 40, I’m willing to take 50, but there are 90 people in the room. What to do, what to do? For many years I had them fill out sheets of paper about their major, class year, previous courses taken, courses needed to graduate – and then I would toil over them. I also tended then to take way too many students – sometimes people I hadn’t let into the course by my idiotic non-system, who simply got in by continuing to show up grimly until the end of drop-add, at which point I would throw up my hands and enroll them. Nowadays, I just squint at the room and say, “How many first years?” Then I toss ‘em. Or, “How many non-majors?” Toss ‘em. Takes about three minutes if you privilege speed in getting the class started over justice. And there are very few who come back to you at graduation to say, “I always wanted to take a class with you but you kept throwing me out of the room.”

So now that I have discarded all that bureaucratic hooey, what to do? What to say? I am going to try some version of what my dear colleague, La Principessa, who teaches at Potemkin University, calls (in a southern accent that is usually mild but becomes more pronounced when she is being hilarious), “setting their hair on fire.”

TR: “Howdja start your class, Professor La P.?”
LP: “Ah set their hair on fahr.”

And I’ll just bet she does. So I am going to try that, but I am going to try something else too, which is to tell them a few modest things that I hope to accomplish, as opposed to the immodest ones, i.e., get you to love history forever, rock your world, turn you into an ace critical thinker, teach you to FOR GOD’S SAKE write a PROPER footnote, persuade you to consider research as a way of life whatever you choose to do for money, and inspire you to find a career you love as much as I love mine. Here’s my list of things that might be possible:

1. Leave you better off than you were before you took this course. This could mean any number of things, and not require getting a great grade. Without necessarily excelling, or even working hard in my course, I think it would be wonderful for a student to have learned something fundamentally different than s/he had ever learned before; realize that something s/he used to think s/he knew is not what it appeared to be; or perhaps simply become more confident. Or more humble.

2. Help you to listen carefully to people and ideas you don’t like, understand them, and respond in a respectful way. And while we’re at it – we’ll work on the concept that an issue usually has many “sides,” not just two.

3. Encourage you in healthy skepticism – of me, of your education, of political leaders.

4. Persuade you by the end of the semester, if you do not know this already, that history (to paraphrase Lucy Maynard Salmon’s essay, “History in a Back Yard”) is a living thing that saturates and enriches our world and can be learned by anyone.

And of course, there is the last part, which I won’t tell them, which is to remind myself, on the good days and the hard days, that I am only a small part of their education, and that I cannot really know what they will make of what happens in our classroom or what they will choose to do with it. And that the most unexpected things happen when you teach, which is really, after all, why I love doing it.

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