People Get Ready

Laurence Musgrove wants professors to feel the emotions that drew them to teaching and learning -- and emotions generally.

July 23, 2007

"As far as the university is concerned, the core of the human being, his or her emotional and spiritual life, is dealt with as a necessary evil, on the sidelines, and the less heard about it the better."
--Jane Tompkins, in A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned

Like many faculty members, I'm starting to get ready for the fall semester. I'm preparing syllabi, and I'm sending my textbook orders to the campus bookstore. I'm putting some resources on Blackboard, I'm waiting to hear where my classes will be located, and I've incorporated my school's academic calendar into my own-general faculty meetings, Labor Day, Thanksgiving break, finals week, and so forth.

This summer, getting ready also means preparing to move my office here on the fourth floor to a new office on the second floor of our building. Because I'll be starting this fall as the director of our general education program, I'll have new digs. Lots of out-of-date files and old student papers will hit the recycle bin.

Also, I'm getting myself ready for the emotional demands of teaching. In the past, I never made my students' emotional needs a priority. When they came to my office with this or that teary-eyed story about why the paper would be late, I just waved them off. I'd say, "No reason to explain. Just get it to me as soon as you can." No tissue box in my office. No time for tears. See you later, alligator.

I also told my writing students to change all instances of "I feel" to "I think" in their papers. They were there to learn how to be critical thinkers, not to share feelings. After all, how were they going to provide clear and verifiable evidence for those kinds of claims? Focus on what's up there in your head, not ... uh, you know, wherever your feelings happen to come from.

Sad to say, that's been my story. Not that I'm a cold fish. I've learned over time that my feelings about my family, children, students, and colleagues are pretty much an open book; in other words. I'd never make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker. My wife can easily tell the crabby Laurence from the sad Laurence from the confused Laurence. Marcel Marceau I ain't; still, my face is a pretty accurate map of my emotional life. And it's a life I've tried to ignore or bury, especially on the job.

Why? Well, I think I'm beginning to arrive at some answers. Earlier this summer, I was attending a conference at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado sponsored by the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English. The organizers of this conference selected the topic "The Emotional Life of Teachers," and they invited Peter Elbow, author of Writing Without Teachers, to be one of the featured speakers.

During a morning plenary session, he asked us to reflect upon the emotional logic of our teaching, to play "the believing game" when it came to the feelings we have about our students and our work. According to Elbow, the believing game is refraining from doubt, and, in this case, purposefully accepting the truth of those feelings to better understand them. In other words, he asked us to commit to the idea that our feelings made sense, and to identify why the emotions we have are the emotions we have.

As you can imagine -- that is, if you know anything about Elbow's work -- we also engaged in quite a bit of freewriting about this topic. And as I was writing along, opening myself to whatever came my way, two very simple things struck me. First, emotions take time. Second, we probably need reminding which emotions got us into teaching in the first place.

Emotions demand a different kind of schedule. They put the brakes on the frantic rush of our daily lives. Thus, feelings get swept aside because they slow us down, they make us late for class, they spill out in a mess, and they produce unnecessary conflicts. They simply interfere with the clockwork of teaching and learning. They have no place in the faculty meeting because they aren't on the agenda. They have no place in the classroom because they can't be tested or multiple-choiced. And in this age of setting and measuring outcomes, what can't be assessed certainly shouldn't be included.

Emotions also reveal how unprepared we are for them. Sure, some of us stand more at the ready than others, but emotional readiness as a topic of study in educational scholarship focuses almost exclusively on the emotions of pre-school and elementary students, not college teachers. In addition, the emotions we generally think of or encounter are negative or hurtful, like fear, anger, and sadness. When we characterize colleagues or students as emotional, they are overly dramatic, out of control, or just can't be reasoned with. We say, "Why can't they get a grip? Can't they see how much time they're wasting?"

In an effort to do a better job of accepting the emotional reality of my profession, I made an important decision this summer. In the past, when a student or colleague came into my office with a look of concern, I always asked, "What's on your mind?" I now realize this question is sorely insufficient. If I really want to get to "the heart of the matter," I have to take the extra time to ask questions that explore the emotional dimensions of that concern. I also have to take the extra time to explore and express my own, to dignify the full humanity of that concern and that person.

Finally, and especially as we approach the new school year, I feel we need to recall the emotional logic of choosing our careers in the first place.

Wasn't it the joy of learning? And wasn't it the joy of teaching? Wasn't it the passion-filled hallelujah of the miracle of our students' lives? The celebration and laughter, the crazy enthusiasm and embrace of the privilege to teach and to meet semester after semester new souls, minds, bodies, hearts, passions, and pains?

Who else gets to do what we do? Who else gets the glorious privilege to teach what we teach? Who else gets to read what we read? Who else gets to live in the continually increasing variety and wealth of ideas? Who else gets to see and recognize and argue for the gifts our students don't even see in themselves? Who else recognized the joy we felt at the joy our teachers felt in seeing our futures for us? Who else heard the honest soul-piercing yes that affirmed us? Who else gets to join this choir?

And for heaven's sake, where is this joy now? What are our responsibilities to remembering and nurturing and practicing this joy? To standing, to raising our arms and hands and voices in praise of the thrilling, smiling, embracing gospel of learning?

Where is our thanksgiving? Who gave us our jobs? Who gave us this privilege to teach and to swim in these libraries of glory? To hold the hands of our students as they trace the lines of their lives, the tears they let fall, the visions they desire, the worlds they discover, the learning they love?

Who sings this? I mean, who lifts their voices in song about this miracle? Who bows before it? Who recognizes the undeserved grace of this joy? Which of us thanks our students for coming into our lives? Who says "Amen" to the love we receive from this joy? In all creation, sky to earth, ocean to ocean, man, woman, parent, child, teacher, student, animal, plant, rock, and soul, in all creation: Why us? Why this joy?

I say, people get ready, there's a train a-coming.


Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago where he also directs the general education program.


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