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The Unconsciousness of Influence
October 4, 2007 - 11:56am


One of the two best college teachers I ever knew—an older Ph.D. candidate who became an adjunct himself here for a while—once told me we’d never know how we’d affected students’ lives; the students themselves wouldn’t know for 20 years. Coming from anyone else, it might have sounded like a defense against student criticisms or justification not to teach, but with him it was grace under pressure. I’m starting to understand what he meant. I’ve been teaching nearly a decade now, and I’m sometimes surprised at who makes the effort, after years away, to find me and say, “Hello,” or “I was thinking about that class exercise you made us do,” or “Thanks for this or that.” It’s always nice to hear.

Is being remembered an indicator of influence? Given how few of our teachers—let alone their lessons—we can remember, it seems likely that our educational narratives are not the solid edifices we imagine them to be, not even the scaffolds built to build the things, but rather the lukewarm coffee spilled from a thermos by one of several dozen workers halfway up the scaffolding on a 20-year construction project.

Think of a single college course you took, any given semester. That alone was 32 performances, each more than an hour long, by the same actor. Don’t you know I was dancin’ and singin’ my heart out? And all you remember of it now—if you remember anything—was when I said Gertrude Stein fired off one of the great literary insults of all time by telling Hemingway he was “ninety percent Rotarian.” You didn’t get the joke then and wonder now if I was insulting your Uncle Tom, who had lunch every Friday with his Rotary Club until the chicken cordon bleu took him all too soon.

Who the hell did you think you were, Churm?

Now expand that to eight semesters, an average of five courses each… there’s 40 profs, instructors, and TAs. Grad school? High school? Middle school, elementary, pre-K, summer camp, swim lessons, Bible school? Let’s save time and say you’ve had 100 teachers in your life. How many can you name? Picture? No fair going to the yearbooks. What about the countless hours of instruction? Surely unremembered moments have made you who you are, even more than remembered ones. Dickinson’s right, as usual:

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Auger and the Carpenter—
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life—
A past of Plank and Nail
And slowness—then the Scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul.


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