The Frustration of Not Seeing

Professors don't always witness the fruits of their teaching, writes Nate Kreuter.

August 31, 2011

Once or twice a week I bike with a friend about twice my age. He is a fitness fanatic, a former helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, a logger, and an aspiring novelist. In other words, he is not easily described. Mostly, he describes himself as "an old logger." Just about every time that we meet to go biking, as we slouch down from our trucks, check over our gear, pump up bike tires, snap on helmets, and glance up to check the volatile western North Carolina skies, I always greet him by asking where he’s been "cruising timber," which is his own phrase for surveying prospective logging tracts. And after he answers, he, referring to my own line of work, will ask me the same question that he always does. "So," he asks, always with a combination equal parts mischievousness and sincerity, "did you stomp out any ignorance today?"

And just about every time he asks it, I answer, "I tried, but it’s pretty damned hard."

And just about every time that I give him that answer, he says, "Well, it’s kinda like whack-a-mole. Every time you stomp it down some place, it pops up somewhere else." Sometimes teaching feels that way: like a series of Sisyphean tasks, minor crises that constantly crop up, only to elude our remedies. More often, though, I find that the genuine frustration of teaching is not being able to see.

A mentor of mine in graduate school and close friend is fond of likening teaching to walking along a high garden wall, tossing seeds over the wall, and continuing along on the walk. The image is derived from antiquity, specifically from one of the Platonic dialogues. The metaphor’s meaning is not, of course, that a teacher pitches seeds carelessly or recklessly or without concern for the crop that they will produce. Instead, the metaphor highlights how in teaching, almost inherently, we are often unable to see the ultimate results of the bulk of our work. "Planting seeds" is a common-enough metaphor for education, but the profound element of the garden wall image is its emphasis on the teacher's inability to see the entirety of a student’s intellectual growth.

We teach students one semester, and if we are lucky over the course of several semesters, but very rarely do we enjoy the privilege of seeing them apply what they have learned in our classes as they grow, mature, and prosper. Very rarely do we get to see the seeds of knowledge that we like to think that we are planting grow, blossom, and fruit. Equally problematic, when a student leaves our classroom, we often are unable to see the threats to the "crop," the withering, moldering, and russeting caused by metaphoric pests — for example, misapplying a principle, or forgetting a fundamental lesson — and so are unable to offer corrective help as a farmer or gardener would to their crops. We are often powerless to help students after they leave our classrooms. Of course, if you take it too far, the whole student/crop metaphor gets obnoxious, and wrongly implies that students are passive crops, and teachers omnipotent farmer-gods.

Not being able to see, though, is endlessly frustrating. And indeed this frustration has motivated many aspects of contemporary academic life, not the least of which include the national testing movements at the high school level and the increasingly loud calls for “accountability” at all levels of education. We all, whether we are teachers, administrators, or simply concerned citizens, want very badly to be able to “see” the results, the successes and failures, of our educational systems. Similarly, one of the most routinely controversial parts of university life, program assessment, is driven by a similar need to measure the successes and failures of our efforts, to see over the garden wall.

I suspect that the reason that many professors find graduate education so gratifying is that relationships with students at the graduate level tend to be more sustained, and teachers are more frequently able to watch students complete an intellectual and academic journey, perhaps even aided by tools that we ourselves have provided to them.

But especially at the undergraduate level, our ability to observe students’ progress is often obscured. When we are very, very lucky, we hear back from students, and have the pleasure of seeing their progress. Perhaps they e-mail us, months or even years after a class, to say how they’ve been applying something from the class, or to relay an anecdote about how something discussed in class finally "clicked" for them. Perhaps they drop by our offices one day, to express thanks, or, in a moment of exuberance, to report how "that thing you taught us" helped them out in another class, or another part of their life. Whether you are a welder or a professor, it is affirming to be able to step back and see the results of your work. But it’s considerably easier to put your eyes on that work if you’re the welder.

There aren’t easy solutions for teachers’ inability to see. Those who teach at smaller colleges, where contact with the same students tends to be more recurring and sustained, are perhaps less frustrated in this regard. Those of us who teach at larger universities, and/or who frequently teach required "service learning" courses, such as first-year writing or math prerequisites (to name but two examples) are perhaps the most frustrated in this regard, as students pinwheel through our courses each semester, often never to be seen by us again. There are no easy ways to reconcile the disconnect between how much effort we commit to teaching and the frustration of being unable to see the ultimate results of the effort. For me, the metaphor of a crop growing unseen on the other side of a stone wall, simply by giving image to the feelings, is helpful in quelling the frustration of not seeing.

And, if I’ve had a long day, or if I’m about to go biking and my logger friend reminds me of it, the image of a whack-a-mole carnival game offers its own satisfying, even if less poetic and magnanimous, mental comforts. It helps also to remember that no matter the discipline, the courses we teach individually are only one element of a larger educational project, and that students will take dozens of courses during their collegiate careers. We are not solely responsible for the results. Ultimately, I don’t know of a solution for the frustration that results from not seeing, but plenty of us feel it.


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