It’s my first week back to school, and I admit to being a bit more shaken up than I usually am. I attribute this to the fact that I haven’t been in a face-to-face classroom since March 2020, so I feel like I am walking into something strange and somewhat foreign. I know some of you have been working in classrooms, offices, grocery stores, restaurants, banks, and all the like all along, so you may not have a lot of sympathy. I get that. And some of you have been back in class for a while now and are thinking, “I’ve been doing this for weeks! Come on!” And I admire your courage. But I’m just being honest. The start of the semester has me jumpy.
I’m nervous because I have been working at my own pace for a while and the thought of being back at the break-neck speed of a regular semester is really daunting. What if I can’t get everything done I need to do? I know all of this will be exacerbated by the pandemic. Our jobs have just been compounded in the last year and a half – what if I can’t keep up?
I’m nervous because this job has me feeling old. At one point I was the hip, young professor who could connect with her students. I was cool and my classes were cool, and I was a good teacher who made an impact. I feel some of that slipping through my fingers these days. I’m in my 40s now. I’m not young. I don’t immediately connect with my students – not most of them, anyway. They don’t think of me as cool, anymore, so by extension my classes aren’t inherently cool. I have to work way harder to spark any interest, and I don’t always do a great job. What was once cutting-edge and inspiring is now old hat. It’s harder and harder to reach my students – not because of any fault of the students, but because I am so much more removed from them than I once was. I have to work hard to stay relevant. What if I can’t pull that off?
Of course, I’m nervous about the pandemic. Luckily, my school is taking every precaution. I’m not in the position of some of my colleagues who are being left defenseless by schools who are bowing to the political whims of politicians of ill-intent. My school has a well-thought out, robust response prepared. They are even requiring monthly testing of vaccinated people, so if there is anyway to be protected at work my employer is trying to do it.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not worried. If for no other reason than I have an unvaccinated kid at home. And I’m not so much worried that I’ll bring the virus home to her, but that she’ll pick it up at HER school, because she’s going to be around a whole grade of unvaccinated kids. They will all be wearing masks, so that’s a bit of a relief, but sending her off to a building of hundreds of kids stacked up on top of each other is a bit nerve-wracking.
And I wonder how long all of this will last. Truthfully, I think if any school is set up to last the fall semester it is mine. But I also look at the situation and wonder what we are all thinking. Covid numbers are worse now than they were when we shut down in March 2020. What is the logic behind all of this? What are these plans supposed to accomplish in the face of a pandemic that is just getting worse and worse?
I wonder if rhetoric teachers of the past ever got the jitters.
Isocrates was one of the most influential teachers of rhetoric in ancient Greece. His students included many notable citizen statesmen and decorated leaders. Isocrates’ school had entrance requirements unlike a lot of other schools, plus tuition.
He was known for regularizing the Athenian call for five aspects of educational intelligence: natural ability, educated training, extensive practice, instruction by the teacher, and modeling via teacher performance. Isocrates’ curriculum required basic competencies in science and math, then taught writing, debate, classical prose and poetry, philosophy, math, and history.
Isocrates was the patriarch of liberal education. For Isocrates, speaking does not stand as a goal–the show is not the issue–it merely represents something else (learning). Isocrates educated the practical man toward graceful style, influential leadership, and issue-oriented analysis. His goal was to create prepared citizens.
Isocrates, unlike Socrates and to some extent Plato, wasn’t after knowledge for knowledge’s sake or transcendental truth. He was looking to help his students become practical leaders. He was hoping to impart to them the useful, pragmatic skills that would make them active, valuable citizens so that they could serve the city-state and be fruitful members of society.
I wonder if Isocrates ever got nervous. Did Isocrates ever think to himself, oh, how will I connect with this one student, or will my model method still work? Did Isocrates ever worry his students would roll their eyes behind his back because he was so desperately uncool? We’re never taught anything but that Isocrates was this great teacher who changed the rhetorical and Western world. But it’s a little humanizing to think he maybe got nervous.
Another notable teacher from a long time ago is Quintilian. For a quick understanding of Quintilian’s educational theory, take a look at Paul O’Neil’s “The Educational Theory of Quintilian” at New Foundations.
Quintilian is probably best known for defining rhetoric as “a good man speaking well.” But he was more than just a guy who provided a pithy phrase. He gave us a comprehensive theory of rhetoric and rhetorical education. Quintilian believed that all forms of knowledge were equally important and that speaking, writing and reading were the most dominant of skills. Learning to speak well was so essential that he advised that when a child was born, the parent must “make sure that the nurses speak properly” for the parent must “devote the keenest possible care, from the moment he becomes a parent, to fostering the promise of an orator to be.” If such resources were unavailable, Quintilian later insisted there be “one person always at hand who knows the right ways of speaking, who can correct on the spot any faulty expression used by others.” Quintilian believed that the goal of education was to create an upstanding citizen.
Quintilian argued that a teacher was one of the most important people in a child’s life. But, from birth, all those that have any type of contact with the child impact the child’s education. In their formative years, the first seven years of their life, the child is learning from his family, nurses, and peers. The teacher played a more important role in the lives of children more than any other, for the teacher’s obligation was to both “foster the good qualities he finds in each of the students, and, so far as possible, to make good of their deficiencies, and correct or change some of their characteristics…he is the guide and molder of the minds of others.” The “he” is specific, as well – all teachers should be men of good character, according to Quintilian.
The curriculum he touted included several subjects, but specifically emphasized the importance of oration. Reading, writing and speaking were the most important disciplines, and he was specific about the curriculum. Following the basic reading, writing and speaking portion, he prescribed that a child learn the grammatici which was “the subject comprised of two parts: the study of correct speech and the interpretation of the poets.”
Quintilian said, “Above all things we must take care that the child, who is not yet old enough to love his studies, does not come to hate them and dread the bitterness which he has once tasted, even when the years of infancy are left behind. His studies must be made an amusement.” I get that he’s talking about young kids there – but that’s a lot of pressure. Making learning amusing is tough. And it’s exactly what I am stressed about. How do I know what my students find amusing anymore? How do I know what they think is cool? Quintilian, man, do I need to do this for my older students?
He also said, “Study depends on the good will of the student, a quality that cannot be secured by compulsion.” Here again, I am a little intimidated. It used to be so easy to get my students to be on board. Now it takes work. Once upon a time I was more like a peer – now I’m an older, untrustworthy authority figure. That’s not to say my students come with ill-will. But can I say that most of them are excited about class, or learning, or me? No, I can’t say that. And it’s hard to inspire that when they look at me and they see just another old person who is out of touch and doesn’t understand where they are coming from.
Did Quintilian ever think he had set himself up for some tough years in the classroom? Did he ever think he was asking a lot from himself and his teachers? We teach about Quintilian as if he was this great, omnipotent rhetorician and teacher, but did he ever have a student that he just couldn’t reach? Did he ever start to feel a little awkward? Surely, he did. He must have been human like the rest of us.
When I put together my tenure file my teaching philosophy sounded a lot like Isocrates or Quintilian. I said my goal was to foster citizenship among my students and help them to become functioning members of a democracy. And I still think that’s a good goal. But if asked to expand on that, or refine it in any way, there are a few adjustments I might make.
First, I’d make it clear that by a citizen I do not mean a servant of the state. In Isocrates and Quintilian’s understanding of citizen they sort of thought of a citizen as somebody who worked for the state. I think that’s a bit of a generalization. A citizen does not necessarily work to support institutions. A citizen works to support fellow citizens.
So maybe Isocrates and Quintilian aren’t the best pedagogical guides, anymore. Maybe I should think more about Burke and his notion of identification. According to Brooke L. Quigley,
“Burke explains identification as a process that is fundamental to being human and to communicating. He contends that the need to identify arises out of division; humans are born and exist as biologically separate beings and therefore seek to identify, through communication, in order to overcome separateness. We are aware of this biological separation, and we recognize additional types of separation based on social class or position. We experience the ambiguity of being separate yet being identified with others at the same time: we are “both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.” (Burke, 1969, p. 21).
“Burke assumes we not only experience separateness but are goaded by the spirit of order and hierarchy and feel guilty about the differences between ourselves and others (who occupy different positions in the social hierarchy) and about our inevitable failure to always support order, authority and hierarchy. As Burke asserts, “Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification is compensatory to division.” (Burke, 1969, p. 22). To overcome our division and our guilt, we look for ways in which our interests, attitudes, values, experiences, perceptions, and material properties are shared with others, or could appear to be shared. These instances of “overlap” make us “consubstantial” with others. We continually seek to be associated with certain individuals or groups (and not others), attain some position in the hierarchy of social relations, and relieve ourselves of the guilt we bear.”
Perhaps identifying with each other is what is needed in the pedagogy of a pandemic. We need to see ourselves in each other. Citizenship has to be more than doing what is best for the state – it must be doing what is best for one another. And we come to that by identifying with each other. By seeing the connections between ourselves.
And more than just serving each other, a citizen is not a servant of the state or institutions. A citizen sees oppressive systems of power and aims to disrupts those. A citizen doesn’t serve the state if the state is hegemonic – a citizen emulates Martin Luther King, Jr., Alicia Garza, and Tarana Burke. A citizen speaks truth to power and works for justice, not normality.
The citizenship I hope to foster in my classrooms is one of radical empathy and community. That’s how democracy will survive. Not through obedience to the state. But through deference to each other.
So how does all of this help me with my back-to-school nerves?
I think what I need to be focusing on right now is not, “Oh my goodness, how am I ever going to survive all of this?” but “Okay, what is my goal, here?”
I used to win all kinds of teaching awards. I don’t win as many anymore. And that’s okay. I’ve changed as a teacher. And my dear friend Dr. Edwards put that into some really good perspective for me recently – she told me I will probably never win any of the big teaching awards. Because the system is not set up to reward people to teach their students to question the system. And that made quite an impact on me.
So what am I really nervous about? Practically, that there will be too much to do? That I won’t be able to keep up with my work? Let’s be honest that is always the case. We are all always behind and drowning and stressed and somehow it all gets done. We figure it out, somehow.
I’m worried that my students won’t think I’m relevant anymore.
Well, let’s consider this. On the first day of my protest class, the very first day, we’re going to address the notion of “normal.” On syllabus day we’re going to talk about the fact that our whole understanding of what is “normal” is only that way because at some point groups of people chose to disrupt the system and change the norms. And it wasn’t a peaceful process. People got fed up with the status quo and did some really, truly disruptive things, and caused all kinds of problems, and everyone hated them for it, and now we have a completely new version of “normal” because of it. Our understanding of “normal” is BECAUSE of previous disruption. Which should lead us to ask who is disruptive now? What do they want? What will be normal in the future? What does this say about who we are trying to silence and why? On the very first day we’re going to deal with the notion of the “status quo” and where that comes from. That’s literally the most relevant thing there is. If you don’t see that as relevant to you, then you are in such a position of power and privilege then when the status quo changes it is going to be a particularly shocking a possibly painful experience for you. And we need to understand that.
In all honesty, I can’t make my students see the connections between my classes and their lives. Quintilian was right about study depending on the good will of the students. But I can show them how it affects us in real time and our daily existence. I can show them how it affects our communities. And if we have done any kind of job dealing with identification and empathy then that will become real and pressing. But nobody can force these things.
I’m worried I won’t know how to connect to my students anymore. Now, this one is tricky. I’m not the cool, young prof anymore. We don’t share the same language or the same pop culture references as we once did. My students don’t listen to old Tom Waits albums and they didn’t watch The Chair. So what do we share? What do we have in common? How do we connect?
We connect because we have the same questions – is this ethical? What do we do about abuses of power? How do we create community? Who has power and how can we all access it? How do we create a fairer and more equitable society? What difference is all of this going to make to me when I get out of school?
I may be getting older, but these are evergreen questions. And my students are wondering about them, too. We can explore them together. That journey is ours.
So I don’t think I can completely get rid of my back-to-school nerves. But I can re-focus them. Instead of worrying about whether I am relevant, I can think about what it is about my classes that is most important for my students to understand. Instead of getting nervous about whether I can still connect with my students I can think about those things that connect us all. Instead of worrying that I am becoming the old, out-of-touch professor, I can think about how I have refined my thinking to keep my approach from getting stale.
Isocrates and Quintilian have their place. But we can’t be satisfied just staying stuck with them. Otherwise we DO risk becoming the old guard – and not in a good way.
As for you – I hope you find some way to make sense of the fall, too, whether you work in a classroom, an office, or a grocery store. Wherever you are, I encourage you to think about the other people all around you who are probably (like me, and maybe like you) feeling a little nervous. We’d all do well to think of each other right now and try to create a little responsible community.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.