The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by a successful teacher"....  ....Sir William Osler.

Commentary of the Day - March 24, 2002:  Two Cups of Coffee, a Student, and a Table.  Guest Commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

A smart cookie  once defined teaching as requiring three essential components: a student, a teacher, and a log.  Things have gotten bigger, and more complicated, since his  formula of intimate exchange was first announced, but I've found my own version at  our campus center.  It has the virtue of simplicity, and my experience tells me that it works -- even if students and I do not sit on opposite ends of a log.  What happens is this: when I notice a spark of interest in a student, I suggest a bit of additional reading -- what I call a "treasure."  Sometimes, it's an article or chapter of a forthcoming book (since I do a good bit of reviewing, this happens often), or it might simply be pointing a student toward Eliot's The Wasteland if he particularly enjoyed "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or to  James Joyce's Ulysses if she loved, absolutely loved A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

I make it clear that we'll meet for a cup of coffee when the student is ready to talk.  No fixed date.  No deadline.  No pressure.  And, I hasten to add, no "extra credit" or anything else that would appear in my grade book.  There are a number of built-in advantages to this strategy.  For one thing, it helps students to keep track of appointments, and to arrive for our meeting on time.  If I find myself "stood up" -- as has happened maybe three or four times in the thirty-five years I've made such appointments -- there are no second meetings, no second chances.  That's the way what is called "the real world" operates, and I see no profit in treating twenty-year-olds as if they were five.

Indeed, treating students seriously is partly what my strategy is about.  As I sip my coffee, the student across the table from me talks -- and by the time I've finished I have a pretty good idea of who I'm talking to.  In most cases, I'm impressed by the way that they have underlined key passages and made marginal comments about them.  As I gauge their involvement, I also get a notion of what they should read next.  That's how successful meetings end -- with a suggestion about what they should read for our next meeting.  After that, the ball is in their court.  All they need do is tell me that they're ready to talk, and we set a mutually convenient time for another cup of coffee.

And what happens, you might ask, when  students show up either unprepared or as being on the thick-headed side?  I thank them, and that, as they say, is that.  No future assignments, no future cups of coffee.  This happened recently to a young woman who made it annoying clear that she was much smarter, much more motivated than the other students in her "Introduction to Literature" class.  As she kept reminding me -- in the hope that I was duly impressed -- she intended to be an English major.  So, when our reading got us to Eliot's poetry, I suggested that she read the annotated version of The Waste Land in the Norton anthology, and give her a copy of the book to boot.

So far, so good.  But when we met, what she wanted to tell me, in a whining voice that was the equivalent of chalk scraping on a blackboard, is that she didn't much care for the poem: too hard, too many allusions, too obscure.  In short, not at all to her taste.  I wasn't sure what I was supposed to say at this point, other than to remark that the poem remains culturally important, and something she will need to master if she is going to be a serious English major.  This did not come as welcome news, nor did things get better when I suggested that she might not be ready for this poem, and that this condition would probably  change in a year or so.  She was, after all, a first year student.  What she said (I don't remember her exact words) came to this: "Not bloody likely."  It usually takes five to ten minutes for me to finish my cup of coffee and a student meeting, but this one seemed to yawn for what seemed like a month.  Finally, I had a chance to thank you and made a semi-speedy exit.

What happened next should give heart to those who think students only care about grades and then about their grade point average.  As I mentioned earlier, my meetings with students have nothing whatever to go with marks in a grade book, but with sharing a few minutes of conversation about something of mutual interest.  As it turns out, I am not -- nor was I ever -- particularly interested in dumbing myself down when I talk with students.  Rather, I regard occasions when we meet outside the classroom as a chance to conduct "education" in a more informal setting.

Nonetheless, a tradition has developed among students so that they know what another meeting means, and what its opposite implies.  The young woman with a chip on her shoulder about The Waste Land soon developed a similar "chip" about me.  That can happen, just as it happens (more often, I'm happy to say) that students will take my suggestions seriously, and begin to bridge the gap between their assigned readings -- never enough, I tell them, to be a genuine English major -- and what we discuss over coffee.  Over the years this has included Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! -- for the student who loved The Sound and the Fury, Jeffrey Meyers' biography of Orwell for the person  who loved "Shooting the Elephant" and Ulysses (summer reading) for the special reader who loved Dubliners and who talked with me about Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom on  at least three  coffee klatches the following fall.

All fine and good, I can hear some of my readers mumbling, but don't you teach at a small liberal arts college.  True enough, but I did the same thing when I was a graduate student at the University of Washington.  The point is that there are students, and students.  I don't arrange meetings with those who wouldn't want  them.  They are expected to do the assigned work in a given class, and that is sufficient.  For those who hanker for a bit more, however, there ought to be chances to get "more."  I would certainly not want to formalize what I do, nor would I wish to foist a set of rules on other teachers.  I just record what I've done -- and what worked -- for those who think that teaching is not as exciting or as challenging as it once was.  It still is, believe me -- and a handful of genuinely interested, smart students can make all the difference.

©2002, Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is the Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College.

The Irascible Professor comments:  In this day when too many administrators are attempting to transform higher education into a commodity, and when too many students regard higher education simply as a ticket to a high paying job (the 21'st century equivalent of the "union card"); Sanford's comments remind us that good teaching still matters.  And, that learning requires both a committed teacher and an interested student.  Not all of us in the profession have the luxury of working in the intimate atmosphere of the small liberal arts college.  Nevertheless, we ought to be able to find ways to reach students on an individual basis.

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