The Professor of a Certain Age frequently appears in a pair of dueling stereotypes: the white-haired and endearingly eccentric white male who delivers brilliant and inspiring lectures; and the doddering, out-of-touch microspecialist whose tenured bliss has propelled the national education crisis. I am approaching both a birthday and the one-decade mark in my career as an English instructor, so, although I have had some opportunity to observe Professors of a Certain Age in their natural habitats, I have found that neither of the stereotypes quite fit the senior faculty I have known.
The more I teach, however, the more I notice a gaping divide between two ways of approaching “experience.” One involves a long, monogamous marriage to a handful of ideas, and a long, exhausted shuffle toward retirement. These faculty are apathetic towards their students, their disciplines, and often both. At some point in their careers, their desire to do the minimum possible subsumed their desire to contribute to the profession or to their students’ education. They have been teaching the same things in the same way (and making the same comments at department meetings) since before some of their colleagues were born, and their teaching practices stagger unwavering into perpetuity, mostly because making significant changes seems like too big a hassle. They are our Professor Binns, who in the Harry Potter series goes on showing up to class to deliver the same endless lecture, unaware that he’s actually dead.
I don’t know everything, but I know for certain that I don’t want to end up burned out and lazy. I have had two other careers that made me smoulder down to cold ashes, so I sometimes worry that I’ll fall out of love with my third profession. Consequently, I have been trying to gather ways to protect myself from future obsolescence. Fortunately, most of my senior colleagues are inspiring role models and mentors who – despite counting their years of teaching in decades – continue to do outstanding teaching, go to workshops with facilitators who have a fraction of their experience, and continue to evolve as professionals. (They have even taken time out of their breakneck schedules to encourage the sometime neophyte who authors this blog.)
The other day, a colleague jokingly referred to herself and a few colleagues as “dinosaurs,” meaning that they’d been employed at my college long enough to remember the last few curriculum overhauls, but everyone in the room knew better. Rather than “I know what I’m doing,” these teachers’ motto is “I’m always learning.” I have asked a few of these perpetual learners what it takes to be a productive, Darwinian sort of dinosaur: the type that grows wings, decides one day to walk upright, or sprouts an extra arm for holding stacks of papers while opening classroom doors.
One wonderful thing about asking teachers about teaching is that they are so generous with their secrets. Nearly all of them have recommended keeping their minds open to experimentation, testing something radically new every year, going to conferences to harvest new ideas, and trying not to remain too long in a comfort zone. One colleague eschews conferences but reads academic journals; several others regularly interrogate themselves about their teaching; a couple have pursued doctoral programs. Nancy Sommers, co-author of the Hacker handbook series, says that staying connected to students has sustained her through thirty years of teaching and study of responding to student writers; along those lines, she told me about an elderly professor who tends his inner flame by calling former students on their birthdays. She also said that making space for her own writing has also kept her from falling into a rut.
It is easy to become overwhelmed by the need to reach the distant universes of our students’ potential while simultaneously commenting through stacks of essays, spending hours in committee meetings, and getting the laundry done and bills paid. When I attend a conference, though, I inevitably feel revitalized. This past weekend, I was in Portland, Maine for the Two Year College Association Northeast Conference. I left not only with a couple of beautiful scarves, but also Nancy Sommers’ ideas on how to comment more effectively on student writing, a panel’s strategy for encouraging better composition pedagogy, and former Maine poet laureate Baron Wormser’s unique strategy for teaching literature (which I tried in two classes this morning with impressive results).
It is reassuring to know that for one weekend I was doing what is required for productive dinosaur-hood. Years ago, after a particularly dreadful class session I taught when I was an adjunct, one of my full-time colleagues said, “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that teachers must also learn.” I often tell people, students included, that I have the best job in the world. Even if eventually I will be one of the dinosaurs, I don’t plan to become a fossil. Good teaching, it often seems, is not about what we can invent, but what we can steal; and it’s not about the information we deliver, but what we can perceive and absorb.