On Campus

The Impossible Dream of Teaching

Great students are great. And I am grateful for them. But they are not enough to make it all worthwhile.

In the final days of summer, my thoughts naturally turn to teaching, and maybe I’ve seen too many teaching movies (Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, Mr Holland’s Opus and so on), but somewhere in the back of my mind, I think that this might be the year I get through to everyone. I imagine a class where every student is inspired to greatness. Everyone’s curiousity is awoken, and each of them is transformed and made better than they ever thought they could be – all by the transcendent power of great literature.

And then I am faced with reality.

The sad fact is, that many students cannot be inspired because I never see them – they’re just names on my class list. Some can’t be inspired because they neither do the readings, nor listen in class, so while they are there, they’re not there. Others might listen, but they do it only out of a sense of duty; they just want the credit. They refuse to be inspired. There are a few left, of course, but the story of a professor who teaches all year for the sake of a dozen or so good students isn’t coming soon to a theatre near you.

At this point, I abandon the teaching movies, and turn to stage musicals, particularly my favourite, Man of La Mancha. The show’s most famous number is, of course, “The Impossible Dream” which more or less sums up the whole thing. Don Quixote’s quest is impossible, not just practically, but necessarily. He cannot be a legendary knight, for the age of such heroics has long ended. In fact, his dream is not just impossible, it is, to paraphrase Simpsons nitwit Ralph Wiggum, un-possible. But Don Quixote is glorious anyway, not in his accomplishments, but in his vision. The quest itself is worth following even if it is doomed to fail.

Which brings me back to teaching. Professors who pay too much attention to how many students they have, compared to how many are really learning anything, are on the fast track to bitterness and depression. I know lots of them who are already there. I don’t want to be that prof. So I focus on teaching as a wondrous thing in itself. Fine and worthy of doing regardless of the outcome. And while I am encouraged by the very good students – and some of them are inspired, they tell me so – I don’t teach for them. I teach because it is a great and important thing to do. Because, as the man of La Mancha says, whatever the outcome, the world will be a better place for my having done it.

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