Category Archives: teaching

A Job’s a Job

“…I was finishing a PhD in philosophy at Emory University. The obvious path before me was to drift into a full-time position at a decent institution, work my dissertation into a book, zero in on a specialty, publish some articles and reviews, and lick the necessary wingtips to get tenure. But some sense of destiny (I would have never called it that then) kept me from ever taking such a path seriously. Though I’d proven myself capable of publishing articles and giving papers in the world of philosophy, I rebelled against the prospect of a microspecialty and the bureaucracy of tenure. Moreover, I hadn’t gotten into philosophy in order to become a scholar of philosophy, however wonderful and necessary the work of scholarship can be.

“When my mother called me from Iowa saying that she’d read in the local classified that Kirkwood Community College had a full-time philosophy position open, it seemed a reasonable way to get health insurance. The saying ‘a job is a job’ is particularly poignant for philosophers. Diogenes of Sinope, one of our profession’s early practitioners, used to beg money from statues. When asked why, he replied, ‘In order to get used to being refused.’ But he didn’t have a pregnant wife. And neither my wife nor I really wanted to live in a barrel and relieve ourselves outside, as were Diogenes’s customs.”

—Scott Samuelson, community college professor, journalist, and occasional chef at the beginning of The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone (2014)



“I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word ‘theory’ until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorize about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.”

Daniel Mendelsohn

Cliff’s Notes

In my high school French class we were supposed to read Hugo’s Les Miserables. I don’t think any of us knew French well enough to make our way through this enormous book. Like the rest of the class, I just skimmed the Cliff’s Notes. When we were given a test on the book, I noticed that the questions sounded odd. They were full of long words that our teacher wouldn’t have used. Where had these questions come from? From the Cliff’s Notes, it turned out. The teacher was using them too. We were all just pretending.

Paul Graham

Students, Teachers, and Power

I lecture at a rather special place, the Collège de France, whose function is precisely not to teach. What I find very pleasing about the situation is that I don’t feel like I’m teaching, that is, I don’t feel that I am in a relationship of power with my students. A teacher is someone who says: ‘There are a certain number of things you don’t know, but you should know.’ He starts off by making the students feel guilty. And then he places them under an obligation, saying: ‘I’m the one who knows these things that you should know and I’m going to teach them to you. And once I’ve taught them to you, you’re going to have to know them. And I’m going to verify whether you really do know them.’ So there’s verification, a whole series of relationships of power. But at the Collège de France, students take only the courses they want to take. And anybody can sit in on classes, anybody from retired army officers to fourteen-year-old lycéens. They come if they are interested, otherwise they stay home. So who is tested, who is under power? At the Collège de France, it’s the teacher.

—Michel Foucault, 1975


Socrates and Jesus

The two greatest teachers we know in the West, Socrates and Jesus, were not without kindness, to be sure, but both had a sharp edge. Jesus asked people to do the impossible. He wanted them to give up all of their possessions and follow him, to change their lives utterly around. Socrates asked one badgering question after another about why his contemporaries behaved as they did.  In the end, society could not tolerate either of these men, and did away with them.

—Mark Edmundson, Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference

Zizek’s Least Favorite Job

When asked “What is the worst job you’ve done?” by the Guardian recently, Slavoj Zizek, in typical Zizek fashion, answered, “Teaching. I hate students, they are (as all people) mostly stupid and boring.”

Now, he might be right about most students being stupid and boring (though copping such an attitude displays a tremendous amount of arrogance), but, oddly enough, therein lies one of the pleasures of teaching. To paraphrase something designer Milton Glaser once said, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing a student go from a condition of inertness and inattentiveness to showing an interest in learning new things.

God and Jerk at Yale

Rachel Toor responds to that William Deresiewicz article I blogged about last month:

At elite universities, students from vastly different backgrounds are thrown together. On the surface, it looks like the world is their pearl-studded oyster. In reality, the experience can be bruising. Those of us who are taught to value critical thinking can get schooled out of a capacity for empathy. In conversations with academics, I am often struck by how little generosity of spirit informs the critique of their students.


It’s a chestnut of academe that students get in the way of the faculty’s “real” work, and an even more tired move to complain about the questionable work ethic and values of students. Deresiewicz’s essay, beautifully written and critically smart, flattens the variety of his students’ lives into the kinds of generalizations we try to nudge first-year composition students out of making.

Someone should put these two on a panel together.

Several “Bizarre” Proposals

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner offer a series of “proposals that attempt to change radically the nature of the existing school environment. Most of them will strike you as thoroughly impractical but only because you will have forgotten for the moment that the present system is among the most impractical imaginable, if the facilitation of learning is your aim.”

Though the book was written in 1969, many of their proposals still strike me as relevant. Some of the proposals I especially like include

4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his “subject” well to write a book on it. In this way, he will be relieved of the necessity of inflicting his knowledge on other people, particularly his students.


10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public. There would be a “smart” group (the Bluebirds), an “average” group (the Robins), and a “dumb” group (the Sandpipers). The lists would be published each year in the community paper. The I.Q. and reading scores of teachers would also be published, as well as the list of those who are “advantaged” and “disadvantaged” by virtue of what they know in relation to what their students know.

Number 10 is related to number 11:

11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know. Only if a teacher passes this test should he be permitted to “teach.” This test could be used for “grouping” the teachers as in number 10 above.

(I know quite a few teachers who would struggle to pass such a test.)

My favorite three proposals, however, have got to be numbers 12, 13, and 14. Here’s number 12:

12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher’s monthly check if his students do not show any interest in going to next month’s classes. This proposal would simply put the teacher on a par with other professionals, e.g., doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. No one forces you to go to a particular doctor unless you are a “clinic case.” In that instance, you must take what you are given. Our present system makes a “clinic case” of every student. Bureaucrats decide who shall govern your education. In this proposal, we are restoring the American philosophy: no clients, no money; lots of clients, lots of money.

And here’s number 13:

13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some “field” other than education. Such an experience can be taken as evidence, albeit shaky, that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life. Recommended occupations: bartender, cab driver, garment worker, waiter. One of the common sources of difficulty with teachers can be found in the fact that most of them simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as “teachers”) and they have not had much contact with the ways things are outside of school rooms.

As good as those last two are, proposal 14 is my absolute favorite:

14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being. If the teacher can get someone to say, “I love her (or him),” she should be retained. If she can get two people to say it, she should get a raise. Spouses need not be excluded from testifying.

The authors acknowledge that some people might find number 14 “facetious, if not flippant,” but they ask readers to consider “What kinds of evidence must teachers presently offer to qualify for their jobs? A list of ‘courses.’ Which of these requirements strikes you as more bizarre? From the student’s point of view, which requirement would seem more practical? Bear in mind that it is a very difficult thing for one person to learn anything significant from another. Bear in mind, too, that it is probably not possible for such learning to occur unless there is something resembling a loving relationship between ‘teacher’ and learner.”

More Pure than Most

Levin had never produced much – he’d never written a book, and he’d never been concerned about writing one. He had devoted himself to his teaching; he had written his elegant reviews and essays, three or four a year; and the very spareness of his output had finally begun to seem a mark of his intellectual delicacy, the fineness of his discriminations. Every writer writes with mixed motives, with some combination of purity and self-aggrandizement; Levin was no exception, but he was much more pure than most. He would have been reading and writing in the same way – for pleasure and self-clarification – if you had put him on a desert island. He had spent little time pushing himself forward in the world, “managing his career”; that would have been a disagreeable distraction for reading and writing and teaching, from the work he loved.

—Brian Morton, Starting Out in the Evening


No matter how good an essay or report might be, a missing staple says a lot. Unstapled work says that the writer either doesn’t know what finished work looks like or isn’t willing to take the care necessary to produce it. Unstapled work says that the writer couldn’t be bothered to use a stapler in a library or residence hall or ask a friend … Unstapled work might also indicate a failure to follow directions, as many course assignments carry a reminder to staple. Worse perhaps than the absence of a staple are turned-down upper-left corners, which seem to acknowledge that there’s something wrong, but that the writer can’t be bothered to fix the problem properly.

Michael Leddy