I have just given the first examination of the semester. The results are poor, and I am upset. I return the tests and begin my standard pep talk. I tell them that the reason their grades are low is because they made inadequate preparation. They missed too many classes; on most Fridays, more people are absent than in attendance. They do not know how to take notes.
Sometimes students leave their notebooks behind after class, and when I notice, I read them. I am surprised how often the notebook has no name on it. The notes themselves make for depressing reading. An entire week of complicated and well-thought-out lectures has been reduced to a single page of semi-coherent jottings. I can imagine a chronic absentee copying these notes and further reducing them to three of four sentences. Perhaps if this student lends the copied notes to another and this student to still another, my lectures will eventually be reduced to a single word.
As I warm to my task, I continue to harp about the notes. Students come up after class and question my grading with the explanation that what they had written was what they had in their notes. I say that their notes are theirs, not mine, and what they have in them and what I said may be two different things.
Once, I was lecturing about the workings of a capitalist economy according to Karl Marx. Marx tells us that our economic system is based upon the “accumulation of capital,” the process in which employers exploit their workers to make profits, which are then plowed back into the business so that it can expand in the face of stern competition. Utilizing the story from the Old Testament in which Moses receives the stone tablets from God on which are written the commandments the Jews must obey, Marx says that for the capitalists, “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets.” This is such a famous phrase and so well sums up the behavior of business firms that I repeated it a dozen times.
As I said it, I wrote it on the blackboard. But because it is physically painful for me to write, I sometimes did not write out the word “Accumulate” and just wrote the letter A. On the final test of the semester, I had a list of simple fill-in questions. One of them, worth two points, said, “_____, _____! That is Moses and the prophets.” All that the student had to do was write the word “Accumulate” two times on the appropriate spaces. As students turned in their exams, I started to mark them. I noticed that a number of students had answered this fill-in by writing the letter A twice. This began to infuriate me, so when I noticed that the student who had just handed in her exam had done this, I called her back to my desk before she left the room. I pointed to the two As and asked, “What is this?” She looked and without missing a beat told me, “That’s what I have in my notes.”
I rant on about preparation. Preparation must be ongoing, I say. I appeal to the athletically inclined. Can you become a good basketball player or wrestler without practicing? Students will sometimes advise me that they are going to miss an upcoming class. They ask, “Will you be covering anything important today.” Yes, today and every day. Or they will ask, “Do we have to read the parts of the textbook assigned but not covered in class?” Yes, I chose the book to complement the lectures not substitute for them. Why would I come to class if I had nothing to say? Why would I pick a book I thought was unimportant?
By this time the students are getting angry with me. No one cares much for criticism, no matter how true, and especially if the critic’s voice is, perhaps unintentionally, tinged with sarcasm. So, to diffuse their hostility and to make my points less abstractly, I tell them two stories, one about Lenin and one about my old teacher, Father Roderick.
Lenin is a favorite of mine, a man of iron will and determination, who once said that he could not listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata because it made you want to hug people when what you needed to do was crack them over the head. Nowadays, I have to identify the great Russian revolutionary. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I had a student write on an examination in a comparative economics systems class that the Bolshevik revolution took place in 1967! In any case, I told my students, Lenin had a facility for languages, which he studied during his years in exile and in prison. An admirer asked him how he approached learning a language. Lenin replied that it was simple. First, you learned all of the nouns. Then you learned all of the verbs. Finally, you learned all of the rules of grammar. Just learn everything, and you’ll have it. No tricks. No shortcuts. Just hard work.
Father Roderick gets a longer story. He was my first college history teacher. Few students liked him. Not only was he an impossibly hard grader, but he was also extraordinarily boring. College folklore had it that he had fallen asleep during one of his own lectures. I can still see him pointing with a yardstick at a map of Europe and droning out in his monotone, “By this time, Spain was a third-rate power.” As I am talking to my class, I begin to daydream about those classes from so long ago. There was something about Father Roderick that I liked. Maybe it was because he seemed oblivious to his inadequacies as a teacher. He never seemed to notice our numbed looks, and he never reacted to the audible groans that emanated from us at least once in every class. Perhaps it was because, at a faculty-student “tea” one afternoon, he told me that Eisenhower had been a lousy president. Father Rod was a liberal, and that was all right with me. As was the fact that he was a sports fan. He had been the school’s athletic director, though not a good one, having forgotten to pay the baseball team’s tournament fee the one year the team had been invited to play.
I explain that Father Rod’s tests were devilishly difficult. They consisted of three parts. Part One was a long matching exercise in which all of the terms were so obscure that it was not unusual for some students to recognize not a single one of them. Some of the items were drawn from textbook footnotes and picture captions. Section Two consisted of the “Threes”; we would be asked to give three reasons for this, or to name three of these, and so forth. Further, Rod was enamored with threes, as I suppose all priests are. Part Three required us to write a 500-word essay in answer to a question breathtaking in its generality. One went something like this: “Discuss the political, social, cultural, and economic aspects of the decline of the Roman Empire.”
We had 50 minutes to complete the examination. It was said that Father Rod had not given an A in a long time. And no wonder. You needed 90 percent for an A, and given that you were bound to lose at least 7 to 10 points on the essay, you had no chance for one. Plus, he never rounded a grade up. If you scored 89.9 percent, you got a B. In my first class, I missed an A by a fraction of a point. I became determined to get an A the following term. In fact, I achieved the unprecedented distinction of earning three As in his classes, unprecedented, no doubt, because I am certain that no one ever took four of his classes.
I tell my class about how I succeeded. I explain that I had decided upon a Leninist strategy. Before each test, I rewrote my lecture notes in complete sentences and with insights gathered from the readings. The act of writing the notes helped me understand the material much better. Next, I took the notes and the textbook and made a list of every name, date, and important term in them, including those in the footnotes and picture captions. I then wrote a definition for each of these, a time-consuming task since I might have several hundred entries. But again the act of constructing the definitions greatly aided the learning. I combed through the notes and book one more time, recording every possible “three” I could find, in preparation for Father’s obsession with the Trinity. And last, I made a short list of possible essay questions and wrote out at least an outline answer for each one. I was ready.
My strategy worked. I got an A, something like 97 percent. As news of this spread, classmates began to ask me for help in boosting their grades. Before the next exam and for the next two semesters, students would gather in a dormitory study room and take notes while I lectured from my preparatory materials. Everyone paid attention, because I now knew what would be on Father Roderick’s tests, and my lectures would probably be the difference between a good and a bad grade for my listeners. No one dared interfere with my presentation lest he be shouted down by the others: “Let Mike talk. He has the key to the course.”
By the end of the story, at least the students are smiling. Perhaps a few leave the room with a new resolve. It always seems that the grades improve on the next examination. But most likely it is I who have learned the most. I have put what I learned from Lenin and Father Roderick to work in my teaching. I enter class well prepared. I have come to know the material so fluently that I no longer need notes. I can talk for any length of time about a wide variety of subjects. I can teach in large lecture halls to 200 students or in small seminars. I can do most of the classroom work myself or involve the students in projects of self-learning and discussion. I have had classes in my office, in my living room, in dormitory rooms, and outdoors. I can handle any question, and I can improvise on something I’ve read in the newspaper or seen on television or that simply pops into my mind while I am talking. I have invented hundreds of examples, and I have a reservoir of dozens of stories and anecdotes to clarify and simplify the subject matter. To give myself credibility I have done work in my teaching areas. I have done economic consulting for attorneys; I have been a labor arbitrator; I have helped to organize unions; I have been a negotiator; and I have written widely on topics related to what I teach.
For years, I got the biggest kick out of teaching. It seemed an ideal job, one in which I had about as much control as this economic system can tolerate. I enjoyed putting the lectures together and dramatizing them every day in front of the classes. I felt that I was performing a useful and necessary social task, educating young people about the reality of our society and hopefully giving them a more critical outlook than they had ever had. They could take what I taught them and go out and do good deeds and make the world a better place.
Over the years, however, my love affair with teaching faded and finally ended. I do not give my post-test pep talk very often, and the skilled work of preparing the lectures seems wasted effort. The theatricality of the actual teaching has become rote, something I do because I need a paycheck. I still do it better than most, but then, in my experience, most professors are pretty inept. I have tried to figure out why I have lost interest in my job. The students are a big part of it. Their past “mis-education” and total absorption in consumer culture have made most of them incapable of critical thinking. They want instant gratification and cannot be bothered with the work of learning. College, like high school, is just another hoop they have to jump through to get a job that will pay enough money to keep them in cars, houses, VCRs, cell phones, and all the trappings of middle-class living.
Most of my students are products of the suburban life and do not know enough or care to learn enough to be interesting to me. I still get some kids who yearn for knowledge and some poor adults who know now that it is important to educate oneself. But these few stand out like sore thumbs, and the other students look at them when they ask and answer questions as if they were creatures from outer space. I do what I can for them, but this does not give me the satisfaction it once did.
Whenever I get despondent about work, my wife tells me that I have had an impact on hundreds of students. If I am particularly irritable, I say, “I doubt it.” Then I’ll get an e-mail from someone thanking me for classes I taught long ago. I published a book in 1994 in which I acknowledged Father Roderick. I knew he would never see it, so one afternoon we drove to my old college to visit him. I didn’t know if he was still alive, but someone in the library said that he was retired and living in the monastery. We found him in his spare monk’s room. He didn’t remember me, but he was happy that I had remembered him. He said that he had been happiest when he was out of the college and serving as a parish priest. He missed driving a car. Not long after, he died. Maybe, in inadvertent honor of his memory, a few of my students have learned the method I learned when he was my teacher.
Michael D. Yates is a retired professor of economic and labor relations at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. This essay is an excerpt from his book, In and Out of the Working Class (Arbeiter Ring Publishing).
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