I want to believe that when I was taking my favorite professors’ classes, those great men and women were at their peak.
I was a little disconcerted, then, when an older friend recently told me about how good my hero and mentor, the critic Marvin Mudrick, had been 20 years before I had taken him. “But … but I was there at the end,” I whined to myself. For eight years (until he died in 1986), as an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I took his classes or sat in on them.
Even so, I knew there were quarters and classes during that time where he was better than others. But I wanted him to have been at his best during those years and I guess he fed into that conceit himself. He would make fun of some of his own old views about books, writers, and teaching — so I believed I was taking him at his peak. He seemed to think he was at his peak.
This past week, with my 11-year-old daughter sitting in on a few of my classes during her school break, I was perhaps at my worst. She was looking at me with expectation, attentively — an encouraging, demanding student. I watched my language and I hoped the students would watch theirs, not that she hasn’t heard everything. And then the next day she was supposed to come again to my classes, but she stayed back to hang out with another professor’s daughter at a campus closer to home, and I was free, and I was in the classroom, happy to be free, aware, by this point in the semester, how far I could push the students and hoping, in a couple of them, to keep them engaged. I was funnier than I had been in a long while — telling tangential stories that then led into better conversations than we would’ve got.
“We tell you everything — what about you?” teased one student.
And that day I was not old Bob — that is, paternal, avuncular Bob — I was young Bob, the one I’ve been missing, and I was willing to tell them things about my life that I wouldn’t have told them if my daughter had been in the room.
I was younger without my daughter than with her — I was free again, and teaching like that, by my wits rather than by my deliberate, this-is-for-your-own-good friendliness and deadpan, I was better for a day.
I was better.
I’ve told a few young teachers this and a few young adjunct professors, that I was happier teaching as an adjunct than as a full-time professor. It’s something like the difference I felt as a student writing for one professor over another, or occasionally now, by writing for one publication instead of another. In one I’m loose, myself, giddy, and in the other I’m responsible and sober. I’m better unsober. I don’t drink alcohol, but I’m better and smarter when I’m funny, when my funniness loosens up the class and makes my developmental students, so very self-conscious, so very cautious, lean out a little for a look, go out on a limb.
Don’t things change for us as teachers? Don’t we have to deal with that damned aging in a way that our friends in non-teaching professions don’t? We get older, but the students stay the same age. Mr. Mudrick used to tell us, his students, that he talked about love and sex a lot in the classroom because it was the only thing we all shared an interest in. I’m not so daring or funny as he was, so I don’t go very far that way, except … sometimes.
Every semester I can still get the recent immigrants and 18-year-olds hot under the collar about William Carlos Williams’s “The Knife of the Times,” a story he wrote in the early 1930s about a potential affair between two women, who were girlhood friends, and are now middle-aged and married with families. Some of my students unashamedly express prejudices about homosexuality, but outrage as well about such affairs, and yet there are not one in five intact parental marriages in the room.
Fictional characters are somehow supposed to behave! Better than real people! Most of my non-literary students hate conflicted people, people struggling to make romantic decisions that will cripple them. Political decisions, social decisions, those are too easy, in my opinion. But dare to tell someone you love that you love her? In my experience that’s the biggest drama. Call me a Jane Austenite. But also call me old.
Aging athletes, like aging professors, also like to say that they’re better now than they used to be. But people who really pay attention know that sometimes the young superstar is best when young; that he doesn’t just get better and better as some artists do; he hits his physical peak, and, lacking steroids — are there steroids for artists or professors? — he deteriorates and becomes a coach.
As I’ve proceeded as a teacher of developmental English I’ve become, to my thinking, more like a coach, an encourager, a butt-slapper (but because we’re not on a field, I do so only metaphorically). But I was better, I think, as a young professor, someone in-between, as someone questioning what we as a classroom of friendly
strangers are doing, as the guide who occasionally stops and wonders out loud, “Where are we going and why?”
No, I’m older and so aware of time passing that I get as anxious as a sheepdog and herd them along.
Mr. Mudrick may have stayed younger by getting himself more and more aware of the constraints on him as provost of a large college program and professor. That is, he deliberately wouldn’t let himself hold back. Because he was my unorthodox model, perhaps it’s inevitable that I slide rather toward more conventionality than further away. And perhaps this has come to mind because last week I started listening again to old tape-recordings of his classes.
He was so much himself in those classes, so happy to be there, so interested in us, in our reactions to what we read, in our reactions to what he provokingly and amusingly said, that those hundreds of hours in his classes continue to make me happy. But having had those stirring experiences, on my teaching days where my students and I have slogged through something that my college or department or my own old-age practicality has decided is necessary, I despair!
And then I have a good day, and I remind me of my old self, and I know I’ve lost something.
But like an athlete on the long decline, I stick around because I really still do like the game. I grimace when I miss a good teaching moment! Like a batter missing a fat pitch, I wince, “Oh, I should’ve nailed that!” A while ago, back in the day, I would’ve! So I’m slower, more watchful and deliberate, and because I can’t afford to miss as much as I used to, I’ve become more likely to take advantage of the little things that come up and go my way.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.
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