University Diaries

Associate Professor of English Margaret Soltan is the author of University Diaries. An irreverent take on contemporary academic life, this popular blog has discussed issues both serious and light: university funding priorities, the detrimental effects of sports mania on academic missions, diploma mills, institutional scandals, sloppy writing, the foibles of poets and publishers, aesthetics, literary theory, scholarly hoaxes, international university systems, life in Bethesda and DC.

Recently Professor Soltan offered some ruminations on teaching. An excerpt from her University Diaries entry appears below.

University Diaries
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tony Grafton, in a comment about my In Her Latter-Days UD Discovers She Loves to Teach series, talks about teaching’s “immense rewards.” One’s love of teaching obviously lies in those rewards, yet it’s hard to talk about them without sounding sappy or grandiose or self-serving.

Or presumptuous. My literature class rewards may share nothing with your astronomy class rewards. Maybe we both experience the I’m successfully conveying information and ideas and even a sort of intellectual ethos to a number of the people sitting in front of me reward, and that’s a biggie. But there’s more.

For me, it has to do with being given glimpses of unguarded humanity. Students tend to be blithely, surpassingly, curious. Their faces as I lecture on (to take an example from today’s teaching) James Joyce’s story, “The Dead” are open and avid; you can see their brains churning … Some of them, I can tell, are preparing to challenge my interpretations (“Why are we dumping on Gabriel Conroy’s after-dinner speech?” asked one. “It’s a model of its kind.”); others are scanning a page of the story for examples of figures of speech to add to those I’ve mentioned; yet others simply gaze at me in a relaxed, pensive way.

This last group can be very quiet, class after class, just looking and listening. When, eventually, one of them, from the back row, raises a tentative hand and comes out with something rather profound, it’s an enormous pleasure.

This is unguarded, unencumbered humanity, learning its way more deeply into life. I get to be present at the birth of some of this learning. At least that’s how it sometimes feels. And that feeling is a spectacular reward.

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