Why I Teach

(Who knows how this will turn out. An impossible topic allows some latitude in the exploration, yes? I mean, what do I have to lose? )

To try to explain why I teach seems impossible to me for several reasons. I never set out to be a teacher. They told me (you know, those folks who tell you things) that teachers were patient. I didn’t know whether my teachers were truly patient. (Looking back, of course, it seems to me they must have been in order to put up with me as a student.) I did know, without a second’s hesitation or an iota of doubt, that I was not patient. Nor am I now.

I don’t teach because I like to manage learning, though I suppose there is some kind of management that does foster learning. I love to imagine and help build interesting experiences that conduce to learning, but unless one says that Abbey Road was the result of “management,” I don’t think I like to manage learning. I’m not even sure that’s really possible.

The terrible truth is that I never set out to be a teacher. If you had told me at age 12, or 16, or even at age 21 that I’d end up being a teacher, I would probably have laughed at you. The weird thing about my laughter is that the teachers I loved imprinted themselves indelibly on my entire being. To this day, I can imagine them so vividly that I can almost believe myself back in their presence. I guess I didn’t think of those teachers I loved as part of school, and thus I probably didn’t think of them as teachers, though I knew very well that’s what they were. Instead, I thought of them as extraordinary human beings who were deeply inquisitive and thus deeply knowledgeable in ways that seemed to me to amplify one’s being far past any degree I could imagine. And the particular mode of the extraordinary had to do with the intellect, somehow, even if the visible result seemed to be a “skill” of some sort.

Perhaps I could see they were teachers, but I could never catch them “teaching.”

One approached knowledge in the spirit of making it accessible to the problem-solving learner by modes of thinking that he already possessed or that he could, so to speak, assemble by combining natural ways of thinking that he had not previously combined. (Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education)

 The teachers I loved did their work, as far as I could tell and as nearly as I can recall, by doing that. They weren’t covering or delivering content. They weren’t specifying learning outcomes on their syllabi. They weren’t prepping me for a high-stakes standardized test. They were doing that. And they seemed to be doing that because it was the precondition for the enlargement of being in this world full of people who live, talk, and work together and want to do that better.

So much of learning depends upon the need to achieve joint attention, to conduct enterprises jointly, to honor the social relationship that exists between learner and tutor, to generate possible worlds in which given propositions may be true or appropriate or even felicitous: to overlook this functional setting of learning–whatever its content–is to dry it to a mummy. (Bruner, op. cit.)

The first inkling I had that I might be a teacher, even if I generally disliked visible “teaching” in most of my classes, came in graduate school, when I led a small discussion (“recitation”) group in a large undergraduate class. I was reading some of the books for the first time myself. I didn’t think I was teaching anything. I thought I was asking interesting questions to which I was pretty sure I did not have the answers. The students responded very warmly. They said they had learned a lot from me. I found that puzzling, truly deeply puzzling, until much later when I read the second Bruner quotation above and realized that I apparently had a talent for fostering joint attention. I also realized along the way that “joint attention” meant much more than making sure all the students were paying attention to me. In fact, it probably didn’t mean that at all, though sometimes that kind of attention is warranted and handy. It meant, I think, that I was able to focus and make visible the purposeful attention any of us might bring to the learning moment, and with that focus and visibility strengthen and amplify its power and efficacy for all of us.

But it felt like being alight with delight. Together. And while I catalyzed it, it didn’t belong to me–which meant I could have it, too.


In the New Yorker‘s issue of May 19, 2014, there’s a strangely wonderful essay by Alec Wilkinson titled “A Voice From The Past.” In it, Wilkinson tells the story of a physicist who figured out a way to take very old traces of sound waves–traces predating phonograph records or even wax cylinders–and by scanning their visible marks, convert them back into sounds. By doing so, this physicist, Carl Haber, heard voices from farther back in time than anyone else had up to that date. (Yes, I’m messing with chronotopes again.) As Wilkinson tells Haber’s story, he veers into an uncanny moment in which the implications of Haber’s work–or I should say, the curiosity driving his work–suddenly grow very large indeed.

Silence is imaginary, because the world never stops making noise. A sound is a disruption of the air, and it doesn’t so much die as recede until it subsides beneath the level of the world’s random noise and can no longer be recovered, like a face that is lost in a crowd. In past times, people sometimes thought that all sounds that ever existed were still present, hovering like ghosts. Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first radio message, in 1902, believed that with a microphone that was sufficiently sensitive he could hear Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, and in 1925 a writer for the Washington Post speculated that a radio was capable of broadcasting the voices of the dead. A radio transmits vibrations, he wrote, and the voices of the dead “simply vibrate at a lower rate.”

“Teaching” might well address this conjecture with dispatch, so as to cover more content: the thing is impossible, the expression is fanciful, the conjecture is worthless. “In past times, people sometimes thought”: isn’t an essential part of critical thinking the way learners are schooled in the swift, efficient recognition that if people thought it in the past, it’s probably wrong? And if it involves metaphor or imagination in the hands of a non-expert, it’s almost certainly a naive mistake, at best. Yet that kind of critical thinking (yes, there are others) dramatically reduces the scope of one’s curiosity, one’s drive, the sense of possibility, the wild surmise that may lead nowhere but may also bring into being the very thing we all “knew” (because we were “taught’ it) was impossible.

I teach not only because I am thrilled to participate in most kinds of joint attention, but because I love the kind of idea Marconi had about the microphone, and I recognize that my love for that kind of idea is a love of enlarged forms and horizons of inquiry, and the energy released by that enlargement. I want that enlargement and that energy to be available to anyone who wants it. And I know from my own experience that this kind of idea is the most fragile of all, yet also one of the most valuable kinds of ideas we can have, because it can bring good new things into the world.

[Haber] said that what intrigued him about recovering relic sounds was the period and the figures who inhabited it. “Roughly toward the end of the nineteenth century, there were these early guys—I like to call them the heroic inventors,” he said. “Edison, Bell, Muybridge with his time studies, Marconi. They were not particularly well established academically; they were not trained as engineers, mathematicians, or scientists; they were very creative; and they did intuitive, seat-of-the-pants, trial-and-error experiments, whereas once you get into the twentieth century, and you have an understanding of the physics and chemistry involved in these original scientific gestures, you get engineers and academics doing this kind of work. They’re more cautious. No scientist would have thought you could hear Jesus. It violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”

He shook his head.

“Anyway, they were the first to record the world as it was actually happening,” he continued.

To encourage others–and thus myself as well–to be creative, intuitive, heroic inventors who record the world as it is actually happening, and thus to build a world of incautious love for the possible good we have not yet imagined: this, too, is why I teach.


8 thoughts on “Why I Teach

  1. I went searching all over the interwebz for this:

    “I don’t worry that computers will get smarter and virtual classrooms will remediate embodiment better than they do now. It doesn’t matter to me if my classroom is a little rectangle in a building or a little rectangle above my keyboard. Doors are rectangles; rectangles are portals. We walk through. What can’t be digitized is love.”

    It resonated for me with your comment: “to build a world of love for the possible good we have not yet imagined: this, too, is why I teach.”

    It is such a pleasure to read your posts always. Thank you.

  2. Loved so much about this post, I added it to #ccourses Diigo and highlighted my fave parts 🙂

    I, too, fell in love with the ending. Building a world of “incautious love” (wow! Love that, incautiously), the good we have not yet imagined. So beautiful.

    I love, also, Mariana’s addition, about love not being digitizable.

    It can, though, travel digitally.

    Thanks for this 🙂

  3. I think they say that sound from earlier times is travelling out from us in space like a ripple. So if you were far enough away and can hear above the sound of other space entities, you might be able to hear things from our past.

    I would swap Edison for Tesla – Edison was a marketer/manager/patenter.
    Tesla was an inventor.

  4. This: “To encourage others–and thus myself as well–to be creative, intuitive, heroic inventors who record the world as it is actually happening, and thus to build a world of incautious love for the possible good we have not yet imagined: this, too, is why I teach.”
    Wish I had written it. 🙂

    Beautiful post.

  5. I want to be a teacher like this, too. You so eloquently capture the depth and breadth of what it means to relish learning so much as to be an inspiration and catalyst for others in our joint explorations. Good “teaching” starts with attitude, and curiosity within ourselves, and moves outward to inviting questions and scaffolding inquiry, and results in insights that move us all forward.

    In my own post, I said I teach to advance my profession. Your post reminds me that advancing the profession comes not only from introducing the foundations from which we can build, but also from sparking new contributions from student co-learners as well as from myself. I always knew that deep in my heart, but your post makes it almost tangible. Terrific food for thought; thank you!

  6. I have been questioning lately (haven’t I always, though?) if I belong in this thing called “Higher ed” because I don’t want to “judge” students’ work; I want to learn from it about what this common enterprise is that we are about (in my case,””Storytelling, Identity and Social Change”), and I don’t want them telling me only about books I’ve already read, I want them to surprise me, and I want them to be connecting to the world far from Boatwright Drive and even Boatwright library–maybe even the world inside our prison system and public housing and other places they “shouldn’t” go… I long for authenticity and I fear that every time “real” academics come into contact with the kinds of work I do… well… its always a challenge. Not because they don’t think it is “good work”–but they are looking for the scholarship. For this reason I love, and hope to borrow, your language about teaching as “fostering joint attention” in which the TEACHER is part of the JOINT. IN other words: I have often wondered why faculty seem reluctant to be true co-learners with our students. I have theories about that, of course, having to do with how close faculty identity is tied to being an “expert” already. I’ll look at Bruner’s book. Thank you.

  7. Thank you, Gardner, for saying your unique experience of being a teacher so eloquently. There is a powerful and mysterious archetype moving through any of us called to teach. I love the startling clarity of your articulation of the teaching… I wanted to say “mark,” in the way we value the artist’s unique mark on the page, how those marks are not to be erased but remain as evidence of some sentient creature’s sure and masterful passing.

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