Behind the Curtain


About a decade ago, I taught a student in Michigan who was just enough of a clown to help the class get some good laughs when they were needed, but didn’t prevent me from teaching the learning units I needed to get to, so his comedy was a welcome addition to the class. It was a serious discussion with this student that became the most memorable moment I had with him, though. At the start of a class, as we were transitioning from pre-class banter to the stuff I needed to get to that day, he mentioned a friend of his who had attended both a community college and a four-year college, and that his friend felt that classes at the four-year college were easier. I asked the student if this was because the subject material at the four-year college was easier, or because the instructors at the four-year schools just had better knowledge about how to teach. The student never got back to me on that, but this turned into one of those “a-ha moments” as students were visibly thinking about the question I’d just asked as it pertained to their own education. Those are the kinds of moments us instructors live for, where we can almost see the lightbulbs turning on above our students’ heads.

From the start of my teaching career, I’ve always encouraged my students to think more critically about the education they’ve received and the education they want, and I’ve tried to give them tools to help them make those judgments. This derives pretty directly from my pedagogical practices and training, but even if it didn’t, I’d still want to do something to help students along these lines, just so they can make better decisions about the courses they take, even if that means they leave my class because I’m not the right kind of teacher for how they learn best. As much as I hate to see students drop my classes, my ultimate goal is for students to get the best education that they can get, and if they’ll perform better under a different English instructor, then I want them to transfer over to that instructor.

When I was on the other side of the classroom, I didn’t really think about “the right kind of teacher” for me until I got to college, because it was only then that I got to experience different styles of teaching and appreciate them for what they were. In my experience, that’s been the case for nearly all the students I’ve taught over the past fifteen years, and they’ve been glad when I’ve brought the subject up not only because it helps them prepare for their education in college, but it also helps them contextualize the difficulties they had with some classes (and some instructors) earlier in their schooling. Even casually talking about teaching styles on social media has netted me some “Thank you for bringing this up, because I thought I was the only person who felt this way” responses from both friends and strangers.

As I’ve been researching my next book over the past few weeks (again, please join my Patreon to get exclusive updates on that work), I’ve been struck again and again by just how many misconceptions there are about not just how education and learning work, but how colleges function as a whole. This shouldn’t be so surprising, since widespread efforts to denounce professors as “ivory tower elites” and the like have been going on since before I even went to college the first time, and even if those controversies haven’t been so visible in recent years, they’re still definitely happening. The last decade has often felt like one continuous lesson in just how learning has not only become devalued in wide swaths of American culture, but often openly scorned as well. That can make it difficult for me to speak about pretty much anything, out of concern that my position as an English instructor immediately disqualifies me in many people’s eyes as a “radical intellectual” or what have you.

Traditionally, recessions have spurred enrollment at colleges and universities, as people who have been fired from their jobs seek to improve their ability to navigate a job market much different than the one they last encountered. Since the turn of the millennium, though, the recoveries from those recessions have disproportionately benefitted the well-to-do, and along with other concerns like the ability to pay college loans off in the future, this has led to those “back to college” movements not being as big as they otherwise might have been. I still don’t think we can fully understand yet just how deeply this current recession is going to affect all of us, and we might not have a clear picture of what America’s post-pandemic economy will look like until we actually get there, so I can only assume that it will be difficult to convince people to return to college in the middle of this recession as well.

Part of the reason I write so much about college on here is to demystify the whole process of higher education, and to the extent that going to college is the right decision for anyone — I’ll be the first to say that college isn’t for everyone, and that there’s nothing wrong with anyone who feels that college isn’t the right fit for them — I definitely want to encourage people to further their education. When college works right, I don’t think there’s another institution more capable of helping people identify and explore new pathways in their lives, and I’ve certainly tried to play my role in guiding students to find and try out those pathways throughout my teaching career. As I’ve read up on just how little is known by most people about college, though, I have to wonder not only if I’ve been making too many assumptions about the extent to which students understand what goes on “behind the curtain” of their classes, but if people even want to learn about these things.

There’s a lot to be said about leading by example, and I’ve certainly tried to do that over these past fifteen years, but I’m feeling more and more like that isn’t enough. My next book has always been an extension of my efforts to try to improve education, and I now have a couple of smaller writing projects that I’ve been able to start tackling here as offshoots to my current research, but especially in light of the problems we’re all facing right now, I have to wonder if there’s more I can do to try to clear up misconceptions about education, and make people more receptive to the knowledge that those of us in higher education have to share with everyone else. Particularly as so many of us are looking to help fix what’s gone wrong with this country over the past few years, we need to think about how we can be better teachers of the knowledge we have to share with everyone else, whether we teach in a classroom or a social media account. The more effective we are as teachers, the fewer hurdles we’ll face in helping people understand what’s going on around them, and what they can do to improve things for themselves and the people they care about.

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