Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The ideal teacher?

Bob Blaisdell has given up on being the ideal teacher. I never wanted to be one.

Or at least, Blaisdell's ideal teacher is awfully far from my ideal. His is a middle-aged male, so I guess I have that covered. But beyond that, I see little to recommend this ideal. His ideal teacher is
  • "a handsome monk in civilian clothing"
  • not too enthusiastic, "but very funny and very serious"
  • inspirational rather than nagging
  • devoid of sexual desire or identity, indeed of any marks of a personal life at all (no spouse, children, etc.)
  • "He can drink juice or water, maybe coffee, but it’s better if he doesn’t. He really shouldn’t eat."
  • "No bus, no train. He has a car, and it’s an unusual car -- not too expensive, but cute and funny. He does not live too close to the college."
And in the grand finale, Blaisdell writes that after the Ideal Teacher corrects a student
the corrected student laughs without shame and is only momentarily embarrassed. He sees before him an open path back into the good graces of his classmates and of course the professor himself. There is a hazy bliss that descends every day or two in class, wherein all the students realize they love him and they love their classmates and they love everyone in the world equally -- everyone realizes their boundless humility and tolerance -- and the whole class and Ideal Teacher sit for long moments in the glow of mutual respect and appreciation.
Kumbaya, eh?

Blaisdell is after ironic caracture, clearly.
Ideal Teacher, this combination of Bill Cosby and the Dalai Lama with a dash or two of the latest superhero, is an angel of light. He will live forever and he was never born.
But irony only works if the ironized object remains to some degree an object of respect or veneration. But Blasidell's Paper Chase-inspired stereotype — mildly eccentric, belonging to a fictional class of scholarly aesthetes — is well past its expiration date. No instructor I admire embodies the stereotype, and no student I know desires that instructors conform to it.


  1. This is kind of funny. It brings to mind two things. One a complaint and another more practical.

    1) I do get really annoyed about how professors are portrayed in television and movies. There are certainly movie examples of the impossible ideal teacher (Dead Poet's Society). That's not so much the portrait that annoys me. It's that professors always seem to have these gorgeous offices 20x20 with mahogany bookshelves and leather chairs, signifying of course that the educated continue to be of the as it were 'leisure class.' They are portrayed as befuddled slackers, self-absorbed, morally suspect and not so subtly predatory.

    But lots and lots of people go to college - including all those script writers and others involved in this particularly inaccurate but cliched depiction of what it is to be a professor. Where is this stuff coming from other than blatant anti-intellectualism?

    I know. The other professions are also misrepresented. 'House' isn't a good depiction of medicine. 'CSI' isn't a good depiction of forensic medicine. But in these cases, the depictions aren't obviously intended to stoke already present resentments and to promote an overall negative attitude about the very people most folks trust to teach their children.

    2) On a different note: in my own teaching, it wasn't the "ideal teacher," that prevented me from effectively working on becoming a better teacher - it was the "concrete teacher". That is, I had experienced many excellent teachers in my undergraduate and graduate education, and when I was first starting out I tried to be like them. It didn't work. It didn't work at all. I had to find a way to be myself and at the same time try to be an excellent teacher.

    Did any of you try to teach like your role-model teachers taught you and find it unsuccessful or successful? This funny article might launch an interesting conversation for us about how, as teachers, taking our own teachers a role-models is or is not useful.

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  3. Great post and a great response! When I first began teaching, I imitated my favorite teachers almost to the point of hilarity. I used vague poetic phrases that I remembered one using, and I bounced on my toes like I remembered another doing. I was unsure of myself as a teacher and insecure, and the play-acting helped me get through a lot. As I got a few years under my belt, I began to think along Becko's lines, that I needed to become more myself. Even then, though, I still found myself going back to those wonderful, silly and inspiring traits of my favorite teachers, including a little pretentiousness that I have since happily let go. After more than ten years in the field, I feel like I have somehow transformed all of the borrowed personalities of my play-acting early years into genuinely real parts of my teaching personality, which is, I guess, my whole point: I feel very comfortable in the classroom, and I feel completely myself, yet not the me outside of the classroom, but the me of the classroom. I have a classroom personality that is neither fake, nor disingenuous, and it has taken a long time to discover/develop this (I don't know which). Yet, I still owe a lot to my favorite teachers for making me want to be like them until I could be like them without trying to be them. Thanks again, everyone, for such a good topic.

    p.s., Sorry I haven't been around much, I have been researching my dissertation like mad, and it has kept me away from some of the nicer things in life, like sharing on this blog.


  4. Becko, on 1): Definitely. You wonder why the idea that faculty live lives of opulent decadence is so prevalent. I posted at ISW once about this essay by William Deresiewicz

    I think he nails a lot of the subtle hostility toward professors in that article.

    As for your remarks (and Jason's) about emulating those who taught us: I've heard it said (and it seems true to my own observations) that we teach as we were taught. It makes sense really: You learned X through methods M, so of course methods M must be good methods for teaching M. This overlooks the fact that, as I've said here before, university faculty are freaks. Thanks to our natural abilities and interest in our disciplines, we were able to learn our disciplines from a wide array of instructors, some of whom were probably not very successful in teaching those who lack our abilities and interest. The unhappy result can often be that our approaches to teaching (which worked for us!) don't work so well for our students.

    Jason's comment suggests to me that when we look for pedagogical role models, we have to be sure what we're looking for — probably not their poetic phrasing, but their fundamental attitudes or assumptions about teaching?


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