Some thoughts on teaching

I am half-way through  Jay Parini‘s The art of teaching, a slim volume of about 160 pages. Parini, being a writer, finds lots of similarities between teaching and writing; and, with his literary and poetic training, finds lots of similarities between theatre and classroom performance:

Teaching and writing have a lot in common here. “In creating,” wrote James Russell Lowell in ” A Fable for Critics”,” “the only hard thing’s to begin.” In the classroom, starting over can feel daunting. Teaching–again, like writing–is a brave act of self-presentation, and with every new class, the need to reinvent oneself is vividly, even scarily, at hand. In fact, good teachers have no choice but to consider their public selves in a calculated fashion; a subject I address in detail later in this volume. The classroom is a form of theater, and the teacher must play various roles, often in an exaggerated manner: wise man, fool, tempter, comforter, coach, confessor. And that is just for starters. (…) In fact, there is nothing natural about teaching; (…)

Of course, some of the advice and suggestions that Parini gives are meant for those who teach literature and humanities; but one can see the spirit behind those, and modify them for teaching in other branches as well.

Parini is also not a great fan of examinations, tests and quizes:

I was always suspicious of the classroom as a testing ground for intelligence, a place for sorting the “good” from the “bad” students. The idea of the academic world as a place of competition repelled me. To be frank, it still does, and I never feel happy with students or colleagues who seem excessively interested in grading, in putting up barriers to jump across. I hate exams, and I find quizzes an annoyance–for me as well as the students who must take them. Test-oriented teaching strikes me as anti-educational, a kind of unpleasant game that subverts the real aim of education: to waken a student to his or her potential, and to pursue a subject of considerable importance without restrictions imposed by anything except the inherent demands of the material.

On the whole, a nice book; strongly recommended if you are interested in teaching or started teaching recently.

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