I’m giving some serious thought to ending my career as an educator. But being an educator, I don’t just decide to stop and then stop. Oh, no. I think about it; I write about it; I examine whether I really am at that place on the trajectory of declining effectiveness that I seem to be. Am I going through a bad patch? Is it just going to keep on getting worse? Could I do anything that would make it better?
Here are a few ways of thinking about it.
Justice Clarence Thomas likens all the outside political pressure that the Supreme Court is facing over its review of the Obama administration’s sweeping health care law to the distraction faced by a free-throw shooter confronted with fans waving wildly behind the basket. Neither, in his view, has much impact in the end.
“Why do you think they’re never distracted? They’re focusing on the rim, right?” Justice Thomas said when asked at a forum two weeks ago about the pressures of the health care case. “That’s the same thing here. You stay focused on what you’re supposed to do. All that other stuff is just noise.”
These are the opening paragraphs of the March 25 New York Times piece about the forthcoming Supreme Court review of the Patient Protection Act. Most of Justice Thomas’s published remarks have not made all that much sense to me, but I got this one right away.
Let’s imagine a development of those crowds who, these days, sit behind the basket so they can wave objects and make noise to distract the shooter. Let’s imagine that once upon a time, the people who sat in that section were those most interested in the quality of the game being played, rather than the outcome. Then there were, in this entirely imaginary history, groups of people who followed the cheerleader’s exhortations while an opponent was shooting free throws. The cheer in its original form could have been, with the first name of the shooter filled it, “Miss it, Patrick, miss it. Miss it, Patrick, miss it!” Later on, it would become, “Miss it, scumball, miss it!” And it could get worse from there: questions of parentage, ethnic slurs, allegations of failed manliness, etc.
Please don’t allow yourselves to be distracted by this extended metaphor. I am writing about how to think about when I should end my career as an educator.
In the next phase, we could have people who really don’t care about the game at all, not even about who will win, but who enjoy harassing “the players.” We who sit in the stands are “the people” and those hotshot jocks who make so much money are “the enemy” and anything we can do to prevent their best performance will serve them right.
Now let’s consider the player whose job it is to make the free throws. This is the character in the drama with whom Clarence Thomas identifies. This player’s job, as Thomas sees it, is to focus on the rim and ignore the distractions. But now imagine that he begins to think that the behavior of this unruly mob behind the backboard is intolerable. He, the player who is trying to make the shot, is doing what must and should be done. They, who come to the game with entirely malevolent intentions, are doing what should not be done. Justice Thomas has just been changed from a player—focus on the rim, make the shot, win the game—to a critic. As a critic, he will not be as good a player.
I think that is where I am as an educator; I am becoming a critic. I am having more and more trouble remembering how much more important it is to make the shot than it is to disapprove of the mob behind the basket. Let me illustrate. When cell phones became popular, students began sneaking them into class and texting on them discretely. The looked to me like my classmates in elementary school looked when they were writing notes under the desk and trying not to get caught. Then they started bringing laptops and, along with all the asserted uses, like note taking, they are rummaging through their Facebook accounts. Every now and then, one laughs out loud.
These actions, disruptive as they are to a teacher who is not used to them, are important mostly because they signal the student’s orientation to the class session. I have always thought that at my best, I was providing them skills they would be able to use for the rest of their lives. At my worst, I was providing them information they would need to pass the tests. Nothing in my life as a teacher prepared me to be considered a distraction from the entertainment they had brought with them.
I got a good look at this phenomenon from the other side recently. I record the academy awards show because there are some movies I care about and some actors I care about and I have the normal curiosity about Best Supporting Actress and so on. Then, when I get a chance, I buzz quickly through the show, looking for the parts I want to actually watch. As I was doing that again this year, I recognized in myself the attitude I have been seeing recently in my students. In their minds, they are fast-forwarding through the class session, monitoring casually in case anything interesting shows up. I’m trying to build concepts and that often requires the reexamination of the ideas the students brought in with them, the discarding of some pieces, and the reorganization of others into a new structure.
It takes a real focus on the matter and some willingness to accept some discomfort. Let’s say you begin with the idea that most people are so ill-informed that they can’t even cast consistent votes in support of their own interests. But the studies show that people do, in fact, vote “correctly.” i.e., they vote for the people and the issues that would vote for if they knew a lot more. Navigating cognitive/emotional rapids like that isn’t easy. It certainly takes full attention and then some discussion and then some reconsideration. You can’t do it while you are fast-forwarding through the class.
And the writing my current students do is so much worse. I’d guess that most of the writing these students do is texting. Whatever it is, it is a kind of writing where adding…you know…every few words is enough to convey the general sense the writer has in mind. Most of the writing I assign really can’t be done well in that mode and I find myself facing two problems. The first is that the students don’t know anything about more formal writing. I’m thinking of things like sentences that have…you know…subjects and verbs. Or, if we are studying James Madison, indirect objects. The second is the growing sense that the kind of writing I am asking for is neither desirable nor reasonable. I shouldn’t be asking them to write in a clear cogent manner; it’s just not something anyone ought to be asked to do.
These two kinds of changes are moral affronts. They are things the students really shouldn’t be doing. They are wrong! (Do you notice my attention drifting away from the rim?)
So if I were to begin to design a class session to move them from where they are to where they really need to be—there is a syllabus, after all, and the course goals are published in the university catalog—I would find I was not starting from the right place. Full-throated condemnation is not the best way to begin this “path back to the lesson.” Also, I find that I can’t get “back” to where I think we need to be from where the students are starting. I used to get students who didn’t know how to do footnotes. Then I got students who have never seen footnotes. Now I am getting students who think there really shouldn’t be footnotes. These are students who cite Google as a source because, in fact, that is where they found the information.
For me, the result of these developments is that I have begun to attend much more to the mob of crazies behind the basket. That makes me less good as a player and I have been missing a lot of shots. These students still need to be taught, but they need to be taught by teachers who know how to focus on the rim and how to hit the shot and how to win the game.
 That is actually the way I feel, myself, when I am watching two teams I have no commitment to. When one of the teams is “my team,” my hope for a particular outcome changes the way I look at the game. I see blocking fouls where the refs call charges and charging fouls where the refs call blocks.
 “Intolerable” is a word that is often used to mean “bad,” but I would like to use it more exactly. The task this word has in mind is tolerating something and the word says that it can’t be tolerated. Not—you will note—that it should not be tolerated, but that it cannot be. When the question of “intolerable” comes up for the player, the focus has already shifted from making the shot to responding to the crowd. If that same question were to come up for a sociologist who studies sporting events, it is perfectly acceptable.
 A republican (small r-) joke.
I’m not sure I ever told you this, but I think the thing that discouraged me from teaching was a semester (or two?) student-teaching for a 5th-grade class in Zanesville, OH. I loved the idea of teaching, but the reality completely killed that. And that was before computers and cell phones. I know you teach at the college level, but I’m not sure if that’s better or worse.
The advantage I’ve found in training is that even if people aren’t all that interested in what you have to say, you’ve got a lot more leverage when they think you can affect their careers. There is a sense, I think, that school is the work you do before you get “out there” in the real world. If that’s been your experience too, you have my deepest sympathies.
So, what do you do when you see people looking at their cell phones in class?
I see people wishing they were somewhere else. You are quite right that I don’t have the leverage a trainer would have. I don’t know what to do to get what I want. I could get a lot more attention by being threatening, but attention isn’t what I want. I could get a lot more interest by pitching the skills as immediately useful and certain to be remunerative, but those aren’t what I want either.
What I really want is for students to come to class with a predisposition to use all their smarts to learn some important things that I know how to teach them. It isn’t hard to want that, for sure.
This might sound a little manipulative–because it is–but it’s something I’ve used in the past. At the beginning of the course or anytime along the way, ask each student what he or she wants to get out of your class. You can then tell them that you’re on the hook for making sure they get that. I’m pretty sure that checking their Facebook account isn’t going to help them get there and you can point that out as necessary.
How about that?