Personalize the classroom

I once studied modern literature with a very knowledgeable, wonderful professor who would occasionally sit cross-legged on the classroom table; the lecture time I spent with him was transforming.

Alas, I have forgotten many of his words, but I will forever remember his soft-spoken, good-humoured delivery. He always looked us in the eyes, making each of us feel he was speaking only to us.

In my 50 years of teaching, I have tried over and over again to create a comparable connection with my students, a feat now made more difficult with growing class sizes.

I am grateful when it does occur, and I am reminded of what 19th century poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti refers to as a “spiritual contact hardly conscious yet ever renewed.”

The firm foundation of such feelings is a deep caring for my discipline, affection for my students and a love of the dual processes of learning and teaching.

Sometimes when I am teaching I imagine a good friend seated in the front row of the classroom and then concentrate on teaching to him or her. In such an imagined dialogue, I try to share the many joys of learning. As I embrace that solitary imaginary audience, I embrace all students and experience the shared discoveries.

Attempting such a deep connection involves some self-disclosure and a little risk, including the risk of making a total fool of myself.

When I first began to teach I rather exclusively focused on the material: fascinating topics in modern psychology. While I was confident with the material, as a young teacher I was not so confident with myself in front of the class.

Now many years from those beginnings, I see the significance of sharing personal narratives, stories dredged out of my own deeply intimate history.

Such stories re-humanize me while awakening students to their own vulnerabilities. Often, when I am stopped on the street by a former student they will mention those stories from which they apparently gained some pleasure.

I remember one of my favourite authors Saul Bellow telling a class of students, “When I sit down to the typewriter, I open my heart. I try to leave nothing covered, suppressed, out of bounds. I give everything I have to that moment.”

And this may be why, when leaving a classroom after a lecture, professors often feel somewhat drained and exhausted. The struggle to personalize lecture materials can be tiring. I often think about the wonderful teachers I have had in my long academic career.

Particularly, I think about my modern literature professor and how he, through his teaching methods, helped me experience the sheer wonder of theorists such as Dostoevsky, Kafka and Camus. This was followed by a deeper understanding of their remarkable works.

He exposed me to what was new in the ancient, what was so simple in the complex, what was facile in those difficult challenges, and finally, what was so compelling in that which appeared banal.

He helped me see what was wondrous in others, and what was wondrous in myself.
But most importantly, he taught me to see what was wondrous about the world we all shared.