Vital Signs

A Teacher Complains

November, and my undergraduates’ glazed expressions are as good as a calendar.  They’re limping through to Thanksgiving.  So am I, and perhaps my eyes, too, are glazed.  I find myself uneasy about teaching, for the first time in a while.  In my experience this is the way with teaching: a dozen good classes, one after the other—or, at any rate, classes that pass off without distress—and complacency sets in.  You decide you’re a jolly-good teacher and that teaching is a pleasant, relatively effortless game.  It only takes one disgruntled student to knock you off your perch, much as a single bad review might unsettle an actor.  But this isn’t what’s happened to me.  My students have continued to be kind.  My malaise is of a more general nature.  These students of mine, are they actually students?  And if so, in what sense?  This is what has come to haunt me.  And what am I, if their intrinsic studenthood is in doubt?

They are students, you will say.  Of course they are.  American students.  But in what sense are they actually students, other than in a technical sense?  In what way do they resemble the students I grew up with?  Come to that, in what sense are they actually Americans, other than in a technical sense, whereby they are inhabitants of a land called America?

This month I asked a class of 33 undergraduates,...

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