The Sacredness of the Teaching Vocation
Bill Long 11/26/05
Untimely Thoughts in the 21st Century
I chose this title for my daily reflection because I secretly want some Valley Girl-type to see the title, come up to me, and say with a sort of space-cadet look in her eye, "Dr. Long, that is so 18th Century!" Eighteenth century or not, the purpose of this essay is to reflect on teaching--the primary task to which I have devoted much of my labor over the past 25 years. I take my cue for today from Marilynne Robinson's superb novel Gilead, in which the dying preacher says the following:
"There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feelings its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time" (23).
Two Images of Teaching
I have been a pastor and I have been a teacher. I have over the years so much wanted to bring some of the special things from the former task to the latter. I think that the quotation just given enables me to do so.
As you look at teaching, there are two images of what you are doing that struggle for dominance. One is that you are the mediator of the sacred to the students; the other is that you are covering ground to prepare them for whatever test looms before them. The latter holds sway today and, I think, will even be more dominant in the future as higher education increasingly eliminates the living teaching voice from the classroom. That is, with the proliferation of "online universities" and other non-real-time interactive teaching techniques, the focus will be on a determinative body of material that has to be "covered" in order for a student to receive credit. In this image of teaching, the teacher is merely a conduit of information or, even worse, a gatekeeper, one who will certify to the next level or group of bureaucrats that the student is ready to move on.
There certainly is in teaching a dimension of the "certifier" or the "bureaucrat." You have to "pass" students so that they can have enough "credits" to graduate. If you teach in the context of an accredited program, you need to touch on certain themes that have historically been considered to be part of the area in which you are supposed to have an expertise. To that extent, you do need to cover some ground, especially the vocabulary of a field, some of the leading ideas in the field and the names and contributions of some significant practitioners of the field over the years.
But it is striking to me as I talk to students, mostly law students these days, that they remember little of what they learned even in the preceding semester. Even the brightest students will take a "pass" from me when I press them to explain a concept I introduced in my jurisprudence class when they have me for insurance law or sales law. Now it is not as if I expect a person to recall with accuracy the details of what I introduced. But the looks of blank terror on students' faces when you ask them to recall things is more than disconcerting.
The Culprit--the Culture of "Coverage"
I think the primary reason people can't recall anything which they crammed into their heads at the end of the previous semester is that education is based on a "coverage model" that works diametrically against the sacredness model with which I will close this essay. Let me give an example of the futility of the coverage model. One of my very best professors in law school was Valerie Vollmar, a professor of trusts and estates, who had established herself as a brilliant practitioner in the field before her alma mater, Willamette University College of Law, encouraged her to come on its faculty. She has now put out what was immediately recognized as the premier casebook in introductory trusts and estates law. I took her class when the casebook was still in its paper-back form, and I immensely liked its practical orientation and clarity of presentation.
The major thing I recall from that class, however, is not any specific legal doctrine but how much we covered. I vaguely recall that we spent a day on a doctrine which had such a fantastic name that I knew I never wanted to forget it, even if I didn't ever understand it. The doctrine was called "dependent relative revocation." I spent most of the hour in which she was speaking of it not listening closely to her but wondering how anyone could possibly come up with such a name for something in the field. I knew it had something to do with the attempt of a testator to negate the earlier will by writing a new one, but the bewildering number of different factual scenarios put under this concept made any rule that she suggested fly right past me. Nevertheless, before I had even managed to scratch the surface of the topic, we were off to another complex topic.
I only learned last night, through reading an 1930 law review article on the subject, how the concept actually developed (I speak about that reading here.) The irony of it all is that the Harvard Professor who wrote the article ended it by saying that he didn't know what the words really meant. I wish I had learned that eight years ago when I was under the "coverage" regime. Now I feel I am ready to begin to study the issue
The Alternative Model
Fortunately for me, I am just about out of space here in this essay, but I want to close by suggesting a different model for higher/legal education: one in which the teacher sees him/herself as a sort of priest, a mediator of blessing, a conduit to life's mysteries, an enabler of human connection. As a teacher I am aware of a huge conversation that has taken place and is occurring on the subject matter of the course. I know that the conversation has personalities and terms to mark off this conversation from the one happening in the next room. The conversation includes all the human pettiness and grandeur that you can find in any human endeavor that is taken seriously by people. The conversation essentially wants to take a certain number of disparate and complex things and reduce them to order, to ways that can easily be appropriated or understood by people today. But the mere fact or reducing things to order, the ability to systematize and explain things, to put it in a form that might best enable a student to enter into the outer edges of the conversation, means that lots of unique things are left behind. The human is squeezed out of the equation by the rigid need to systematize or present information in a palatable form.
The task of the teacher is not merely to tell students that a conversation is taking place and to introduce them to the major terms of the conversation, but also to bring them into the human mysteries that really lie at the heart of each conversation. In this sense I return to the quotation that began this essay. Teaching, I believe, acknowledges sacredness. It acknowledges that right in your presence is a person of value, of dignity, of energy, who would love to understand what all the ruckus is about. Teaching recognizes that I, the teacher, have the privilege of mediating aspects of that conversation to the student. When that realization dawns on you, you know that at the heart of the teaching vocation is to connect the mystery of your own existence to that of another.
And that is what a student will never forget. Even next semester.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long