Tap Dancing to Bob Dylan
(A Philosophy of Teaching)
I must confess that I don’t remember what I wrote in 2002 when I was last nominated for CCSU’s Excellence in Teaching Award (and was very honored to be named a finalist), but I’m willing to wager it was wordier than it will be this time ‘round. Now that I’m in my thirtieth year of teaching, I’ve simplified my thinking (or, at least, have identified a pithy statement of my views!) and, more importantly, I’ve become a student again.At the conclusion of “Dear Landlord” (from his mythopoeic 1967 album, John Wesley Harding), Bob Dylan sings:
And if you don’t underestimate me
I won’t underestimate you.
Practically speaking, this means my encouraging my students to a) invest in our class time together to the fullest extent with questions and comments for me and their peers; b) visit my office hours for extra help (whenever and as often as necessary); c ) submit drafts of their papers to me before they are due, so I can comment on and help them sharpen both their ideas and their expression of those ideas; and d) tap into my expertise, my experience, and my position in whatever way they can to glean the most out of their time here at CCSU.
While I’ve always done these things, their importance has been magnified since I became a struggling student again. In Spring 2007, during my last sabbatical – knowing that, with two school-age daughters, I wouldn’t be traveling anywhere, yet still wanting to do something different (as a break from researching St. Eulalia of Merida) – I began weekly tap dance classes at the Community Division of The Hartt School. My rationale went something like:
“If those penguins in Happy Feet can tap, well, dammit, so can I.”
Five years of elementary tap classes later, I can testify,
“Well, no, I can’t.”
This epiphany has meant not a little to my teaching because it has driven home to me that, even when a student tries, some subjects and/or skills simply don’t come easily or, perhaps, come at all. I have, for example, attended my tap classes faithfully, pay attention, try, and practice, but – even when I can do individual steps passably (or, perhaps, even well) – I’ve never gotten any good at combinations, much less routines. As a result, I have come to acknowledge that failure, or at least an extended struggle for competence, is a possibility and should not be dismissed as mere lack of effort or interest. Indeed, limited success, and even failure, can be an acceptable outcome – provided both parties, the student and teacher, have tried to achieve, attempted alternate approaches, and not simply surrendered to the struggle. (I, for example, still happily trudge off to tap each week knowing that many past classmates have gone on to more advanced classes, while my out- and under-standing teacher is never dismissive of my efforts.)
Furthermore, this realization (coupled with the knowledge that much of what I teach – from composition to Latin to the literatures of ancient Greece, Rome, and early America – are not what many deem “relevant” or prima facie “interesting”) makes it imperative for me to be as welcoming, engaging, and supportive as possible, while never underestimating them.
That I have been nominated once again and have so promptly found six students and a colleague to testify to my approach as a teacher must mean I’m doing something right.
Just don’t ask me to do a time step.