Starting each semester, I put my kayak into the headwaters of an unknown river, prepared with all the navigation equipment I may need, and the experience I carry from 18 years of teaching. The daring trip begins with only an anticipated destination for a map and a compass to keep us heading, generally, in that imagined direction.
I know where we will need to go, but how we’ll get there is not on any map. The adventure, or disaster, awaiting me depends upon the dynamics of the students: their own swirling energies, the classroom personas they’ve developed or those they are newly trying. Of course, my own proclivities and energies meet theirs in a confluence that can be turbulent or serene depending on what’s under the surface of our joining.
Last fall, I started a demanding schedule: teaching one evening class on Mondays and Wednesdays, and three classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I traveled to three different campuses during the week, and by the time I walked into my last class on Tuesday afternoons, I was physically and mentally tired. At the start, I had hoped for a class with enough energy to buoy what I knew would be my own lowest point of the day. I got more than I was hoping for.
My first meeting went well, and the class was energetic, to a fault. One cluster kept up a lively and continuous banter, while students on the fringes of the class maintained a civil quiet. The dynamic character of the class was definitely enjoyable, but also tinged with potential volatility.
I wondered how I was going to manage the animated cluster while also engaging the quiet students. Watching their dynamics, I could see the class was not coalescing into the gentle trip for which I had hoped. I could tell, however, that anxiety coursed beneath their discussion: the anxiety of the first-year student trying out old skills in a completely new environment and desperately hoping they’d work. Though I was tired, I liked these students. Though I worried about managing them, they were entertaining. It seemed like a good class from the start.
We hit whitewater around the third day of class. I had assigned a reading on discovering a sense of vocation -- an assignment that had been successful in the previous semester. When I launched the opening discussion, I was met with charged comments, none of which was substantive criticism. The liveliest group, of course, offered the loudest, weakest points: “I don’t like the cover.” “He writes like a woman.” Things escalated.
Amused by their reactions, I bantered with them as I worked to focus the discussion on more substantive commentary above the din. But I also began to be more than a little irked. I had selected the reading carefully, with my class plan in mind, and here was a disaster in the making the second week of class. The fringe students glared at the noisy ones, harrumphing in their chairs. Members of the cluster egged each other on to more dazzling displays of amusing disdain.
And then it happened. Caught up in the repartee, I momentarily lost the dualistic mind -- one part engaged, one part observing -- required during teaching. One student, an amiable young man practiced at humorous commentary, posited a summary statement that was pure garbage. I fired back and laughingly told him so. His face fell. I knew I had made a big mistake. I had turned that student off. I apologized immediately, but the damage was done.
As I reacted to their comments, I neglected to observe what was really happening. I also forgot the students’ vulnerability. Their ability to dish out ridicule did not reflect their ability to receive it, particularly from their professor. I had potentially shut off any other student less willing to risk mockery. While I was annoyed with the students, I was doubly annoyed with myself. On my drive home, I considered what had happened, and wondered about how to retrieve what might have been lost during our exchange.
I saw in our experience a troubling problem: what the students had assumed was critical commentary was nothing more than ridicule. My own balance between engaging with the students and observing their reactions had been skewed in the resulting discussion. While I did not want to disengage from the students, I needed to observe more carefully the undercurrents beneath their classroom antics. Worried that I would not like him, my victim had used his humor to engage me, to make me laugh, to join in his witty barbs, and because I did like him, I had joined in. But we were not on equal footing and my comments contained a much more powerful threat because I did not have to like him, and he knew it.
Whether we liked each other was insignificant in the classroom community, but that we respected each other, and those we read, was paramount to our learning. Here was the crux of the problem: Our respect for each other, our respect for the writer of the text, our respect for the collaborative and communal experience of the class, had evaporated in the discussion. How to get it back?
When our class next met, I told my students that I had been thinking about our last class all weekend, and that I had been disturbed by what had happened because it was not how I wanted our class to go. I summarized my reading of the events, pointing out the mocking comments, which they half-heartedly denied. Then I posited that the reason we should not approach texts so disdainfully was that 1) mocking something was easier than thinking about it critically, and 2) because mockery begat mockery and we had seen the very problematic results of that. After digesting my comments, one student admitted that the reason she had reacted so strongly was because she did not understand the text, a point I found much more useful to our discussion. And that is where we began again, moving forward together through the challenges of the reading.
In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes “the way we diagnose our students’ condition will determine the kind of remedy we offer.” Diagnosing the condition that stands between students and their learning can be the most difficult, and most rewarding, aspect of teaching, but it takes that dual mind. The ability to observe how students are learning in the midst of engaged interaction allows an educator to learn what lies beneath the classroom persona, and to avoid the easy, derogatory cliché that turns off both teacher and student from the successful interaction of learning. What I hope my students learned that day was that neither my mockery nor theirs was acceptable intellectual behavior, that engaging in a discussion required respect from, and respect for, for all the participants.
As we recovered from our whitewater moment, my class and I did develop a much better relationship. Outbursts were few, but their general good humor resurfaced. The quiet students glared less at the boisterous ones, and the classroom dynamic shifted away from peril. I could have easily blamed those students for their lack of depth, bemoaned the state of youth today, and abandoned them in their learning as I closed off from understanding the individuals who were my students. I could have cynically scoffed at their intellect before I gave them a chance to demonstrate anything saving myself from any effort.
But I would have lost out on meeting the very interesting people they were in the process of becoming -- a collegiate swimmer, a crisis management EMT, an abstract artist, and an Eagle Scout. By focusing on the real issue, I offered all of us an opportunity to restart our journey, and make our class a vital passage into learning.
Amy L. Wink has taught writing and literature at several universities. She is the author of She Left Nothing in Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of 19th Century  (University of Tennessee Press). She is currently an adjunct professor at Austin Community College.