A Class Learns To Teach Itself

WHEN I first arrived at the University of Miami as a young assistant professor, it soon became apparent that after a brief honeymoon in prime time, junior faculty were assigned something other than the midday classes so coveted by the senior faculty.

From time to time I would have to teach in what was then called the Evening Division. It crossed my mind that this was perhaps a subtle form of hazing or some kind of academic K.P. There was clearly nothing wrong with teaching in the evening, I told myself. However, I was not entirely convinced that there was not an aura of ``night school'' that lingered about the whole process. But when the time came for me to take my turn at the Evening Division capstan, I discovered that, if anything, it was more demanding and more exciting than any teaching I had ever done.

I found out that people who ``come back to school'' are not inclined to settle for anything less than the best from themselves or from others. They do not have the time, if they had the inclination, to put up with the half-baked or the half-hearted. They do not have to be there because someone is paying their tuition for them; they have decided to be there because it is essential for them to be there. As a disposition for learning, nothing could be more appropriate or more productive.

Most of all I discovered that in the process of teaching people who were ``coming back,'' I had come back myself to certain fundamental principles of teaching and learning. One of these principles was implicit in the fact that I chose a career as a teacher: that good teachers are good students, and good students are good teachers.

As I look back on that experience, one class stands out in my mind. We were studying Shakespeare's tragedies. The group was a mixture of older and younger students, a combination that was to produce a remarkable dialogue in the weeks to come.

Among the older students was a man in his 50s, a dark, solid man who sat in the last row, last seat. At first he did not say much. He watched carefully and listened intently.

When we came to King Lear he began to speak. He asked hard questions - of Shakespeare as well as of me. He talked about Lear's foolish, stubborn rejection of the daughter who loved him best and its relation to Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia. He talked about Lear, inconsolable at the death of his child, looking for some sign that she is still alive:

If it be so,

It is a chance which does

redeem all sorrows

That ever I have felt.

What he said made the other students look at the text more closely. One after another they began to add to his analysis, until I realized I was no longer ``teaching'' the class. It was moving on its own, weaving a very subtle and complex critical commentary on the play. From then on, the class was founded upon a kind of agreement that we would all give our best to reading these great plays, bringing whatever we had by way of insight, knowledge, and experience to the task. It seemed then, and it seems now, a remarkable occurrence, one that serves as a paradigm for the kind of implicit contract I strive to establish in every class.

At the end of the semester, I had to ask how he had come to know and understand so much about Shakespeare. ``A year ago I lost my daughter,'' he said. I didn't ask any more questions. He had said all he wanted to say. I think that if the truth were known, after that class his life was never the same; neither was mine.

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