I did something this week that I have not done in twenty years of teaching: I walked out of class. I didn’t do it on the spur of the moment. Like a troubled marriage, things had been leading up to that point for weeks. The final straw was my realization that standing there watching the class read the article I had assigned was a waste of my time and an affront to me personally. After all, I had prepared for class. Why hadn’t they?
So, I gathered my things, told them I was “done,” and walked out of the room. I thought about sticking my head back in and telling them I’d be at my mother’s with the children, but decided against it.
About an hour later, I received an email from a student, who was writing on behalf of the class, apologizing for not being prepared and asking for “another chance.” Of course, I gave it to them. I am all about second, third, and even fourth chances. I have had that many in my life and am sympathetic to those who need mulligans. Also, it would have been awkward explaining to the dean why I cancelled the remainder of the semester and sent them all home.
My attitude toward teaching is that this is a university and students are adults. I know their brains are still forming, but then so is mine. Within wide limits, they can do just about whatever they like and say whatever they feel. I’m funny about freedom of speech that way and do not see my role as being in loco parentis, or acting as a parent, which is simply a poor management strategy to justify tuition hikes and hire more administrators.
The problem is that if you treat students like children, which is what most universities do, they will act that way: texting and surfing the Internet in class when they should be doing genuine research, not preparing the readings, and not engaging in the discussion. Like children, they will remain passive.
But education is not a passive activity. It is not for spectators. It is a gladiatorial contest, an agon (as in agony), in which you discover the truth about who and what you are. Hopefully, it is also armed combat, one of those arms being rational thought, which is an innate, genetically determined property of humans. Even so, the agon is won through failure.
Why failure? Because it narrows the field, dispels illusion, focuses the will, smashes the ego, pares away the extraneous, and reveals the non-essential for what it is: a carnival act. It is a wonderful and effective way of learning, because it stays with you for the rest of your life and, possibly, the lives of others. But you’ve got to stay in the game to reap the benefit.
Which brings me back to my class. I must pay tribute where it is due. The “walk-out” was not my creation but has antecedents. One day in 1976, I sat in a Shakespeare class at Ursinus College led by Dr. James Decatur. Upon discovering that no one had read the material, Decatur sat back in his chair and said, “And now I shall throw a hissy fit!” He did, reprimanding us for wasting his time, which he took as a personal affront.
It was wintertime, and he had to reverse the laborious ritual he had performed when he had come in, which involved removing his hat, unraveling his scarf, taking off his coat, unscrewing the cup from his thermos, and pouring coffee (with cream) from the thermos into the cup. We watched the entire ritual from soup to nuts and back again. Then he exited, stage left, in a huff.
Thankfully, he was a most forgiving man and gave us another chance.