Teaching: Service, Sympathy, Creativity, Discovery
It must be something about turning 40 in 2015 that has spawned these reflective posts, but that is where I am so rather than curse the darkness I blog. I just finished my time at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies where I have been proudly employed for the last three years. I left by choice as I needed to steel myself for the coming transition. My wife and I have no idea where we are going next, but we know we need time to make it happen so hence the resignation. I am still working several projects, but those aren’t location specific so time to finish up here in Korea and give it the respect it deserves and then home to the United States for a bit to see family. From there, I don’t know where but I came to grips with the fact years ago that I am of the ilk that finds that uncertainty stimulating.
Yet back to my point. I have finished at my university which means I have finished teaching, and that I will miss most. These last three years has reinvigorated a love of teaching in me that had been dormant for years and has balanced me a bit in terms of my pursuits, hence the subject line of this post. I came to realize that I am also as happy as I have ever been and I think that arose, accidentally, as a result of the counterweight that teaching applied to my other pursuits. I came to realize that there were fields in which I had neglected and am only paying homage to now. So I decided to approach this with some simplistic rigor to reflect on what teaching had indeed provided, and why I stand amongst those who teach and who refuse to bend towards narratives of mere facilitation, devoid of art and innovation. I divided as best as I am able the categories that I felt were needed for my life to have balance, one that spans both the personal and professional.
This is what teaching foregrounded, but had been for years latent, implicit, indirect. I had always felt the need for service of some sort. To give of yourself for the betterment of others, however self-serving that might indeed be (ego, renumeration, identity, etc.), is a noble pursuit. I don’t have any issue saying the word noble there, either. We are all meant to serve, in some way, the larger good and teaching is all that and more. Towards the end of my time at this university, I began to see my role as professor differently. I loved teaching and took it seriously, but I saw this service broaden outside the classroom. I saw my impact being defined through the peripheral activities: recommendations, mentoring, feedback, extracurriculars, and how the following quote (which I posted after the semester in June, 2014) was my way of crystallizing this iterating view of service and how it feeds into the second point.
Marking final exams and submitting final grades and all that and realizing how easy it is to dismiss the quiet students. Amusing, because that is basically dismissing what I was as a student. As a teacher, it is important to acknowledge the contributions of the quiet, introspective ones. Not to inherently value volume over measured substance. Yes, you can be assertive and substantive (and quiet and shallow). But teaching, unfortunately, is a bit of a volume business so easy to overlook those that are comfortable in the silences and shadows. It can be as simple as a line of feedback on email saying that you heard them, you were impressed by them, that they have a voice. Goes a long way.
That all came to me as I sit here and stare at a student roster and am befuddled as to who this one student is. My failure, not theirs.
Sympathy is really the bridge between the personal and the professional, the almost molecular structure that allows for the flow of activity between the informal and the formal, where thoughts become activity, activity becomes practice, and so forth. I developed sympathy through teaching that extended beyond the immediacy of my personal existence (my wife, primarily) and the abstraction of charity or philanthropy. It was real and immediate and as referenced in the quote above, punishing. Even on scale (hundreds of students a semester), I learned how to push beyond my own judgments, to understand what I had missed, and to reflect on my mistakes. And these were not necessarily mistakes of professional practice; I feel comfortable enough in that aspect of my teaching. I know how the classroom works, I know the underlying theory, and I can perform accordingly (and I do believe performance in an undertheorized aspect of teaching that we need to add back to the narrative).
These were mistakes of sympathy, where I had failed to notice participation and leadership appearing in many forms (silence as significant activity, quietness and solitude as introspection and considered discovery, etc.). And the ultimate irony is that this was me ignoring myself. I was quiet, I was shy and introverted. I bloomed late. I didn’t have sympathy for the attributes that these students were presenting that were in myself; I had failed to facilitate a structure that accounted for these. As such, my sympathy began to inform my practice. I started to design for this.
This is an oft-overlooked aspect of teaching as well and it would do us well to reaffirm this in the narrative of teaching merely as facilitation. I would ask anyone that wants/needs a reductionist view of teaching to justify some parallel move in funding or privatization to attend a class of mine or indeed many of the hundreds of teachers that I network with on social media, on online, or in person. If you don’t think there is, or indeed needs to be, persistent creativity involved that spans the intellectual, the emotional, the social, the disciplinary, and so forth, then I would argue that you yourself received the reductionist education you are attempting to bring about on a larger scale.
You can call this what you will and I do as well; I use different terms for different audiences. I scaffold or create zones of proximal development when talking with teachers, I find angles or make relevant connections with non-teachers, I push for capacity development with some crowds and self-reliance with others. But I am in the business of creatively articulating and executing both an educational context and purpose, both significance and motivation to realize and execute on that significance. And I do this daily. Many times daily. At the end of every semester, I throw it all away and start again. I occasionally repurpose material, I occasionally reiterate a point from a previous semester, but otherwise everything is new, or as new as I can make it. That is often for me, for my motivation and for my identity, but it feeds into my practice.
The discovery aspect of this feeds from the previous points. If I am in service, if I am in league with my fellow human beings through sympathy, if those points and my own natural inclinations call me to creativity, then discovery is set to follow. This is where rigid curricula and reductionist narratives are most apt to do harm. Along with professional practice, with theoretical foundations, with experience, expertise, ethics, and so forth, we should seek to bring about discovery by chasing down the unknown with curiosity and compassion. I am now at the point with my teaching that if something unexpected doesn’t happen in class, I feel a slight disappointment. I don’t mind diverting from a lesson to pursue a tangential course of inquiry. And this diversion is not fueled solely by intellectual or disciplinary pursuits, or spelled out through a learning objective; it is often a diversion fueled by curiosity or some gravitation towards a particular subject. In the South Korean system of education, a highly grinding, highly competitive, highly impersonal environment, I do nothing but provide a counter narrative. Life is meant to be discovered and I as a teacher can help prepare you for that discovery.
So please forgive the simplicity here. In truth, it is much much more complicated than this. I have left out significant aspects of my practice that inform all of this. My love of solitude (again, I am an introvert), art (as opposed to mere creativity), variety, travel (informs all my professional practice) and so forth. But it is this time of year when reflective diatribes flows a little freer, so I share mine with you.