Teaching as Pain

Boy fell from the bike in a parkAfter my presentation at the 2016 Western States Rhetoric and Literacy Conference (power point), a well-meaning participant took exception to my claim that students should enjoy learning, and more specifically, learning how to improve their writing. His counter-claim was that people can learn through unpleasant experiences–this is the general frame for the “rigor” group. The difference between learning through pleasure and learning through pain could perhaps usefully be linked to Lakoff’s analysis of liberals and conservatives in Moral Politics.

My critic–and I hope I am doing him justice here–used as an example his attitude toward teaching. He said he doesn’t like teaching but he knows he is a good teacher. By analogy, one might not like to write but be a very good writer. There are, he argued, multiple ways into a developing a skill. One is hard, unpleasant work. Underneath this claim might be a further claim: that by teaching a skill through unpleasant experiences, one is also teaching character.

In my younger years, I was an athlete. I wrestled, generally successfully, at the high school and college levels. I loved wrestling. Practice was hard work. My friend, Eddie Keller, and I would stay long after official practice, wrestling and wrestling and wrestling. Both of us loved it. It was hard work. But it was also pure pleasure, Eddie and I working against each other. We got very good at it–at least I thought I was, until I met my good friend,  Elmer Beale. He pinned me in about 1:30.

Let me reference here, as I have in other posts, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. And of course, Dewey’s description of learning as game.

I have wondered about my critic’s opposition to my thesis that students should enjoy learning (I was connecting this claim, oddly enough, to a way of assessing success in teaching writing). My critic was thoughtful. I had the feeling that he was an extremely successful scholar. He had the air of someone who is frequently published. He may in fact not have liked teaching because he preferred to be researching, writing, and publishing. I thought that if he had gotten into the flow of teaching, he would have been a very good teacher. But I also thought that anyone who doesn’t like teaching can’t be a very good teacher. I am certain that many of my readers will disagree with me here.

I am not going to argue the point. I am bothered by an educational system that creates teachers who think they are good teachers but who don’t like teaching. I think the dynamics structuring this system are complicated, placing publication and teaching in opposition to each other (I know that’s overly simplifying the dynamic).  What might be worse is imagining that your students can’t interpret your attitude–that you would rather be doing something else.

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