Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Rewards of Teaching/Mentoring

So, the last post that I did about teaching was about the more irritating aspects of evaluation at my institution, and I did want to balance it with a post about the very real rewards and pleasures of the teaching that I get to do at this institution.

I think I've said on this blog before that teaching wasn't the initial thing that attracted me to this profession. I believed when I was 19, and I still believe it today, that if the thing you most aspire to do is teach, and if don't have a real and sustained passion for research, getting a PhD is probably a stupid course of action. A PhD is a research degree, first and foremost, and you've got to be most passionate about that part of things in order to make it through grad school alive. I'm sure some would disagree with me, but I do believe that. Now, it is possible through the course of graduate school and the beginning years of one's career to come to care a great deal about teaching, and sometimes to like it better than one's research. But if the initial drive to do scholarship isn't there, well, that's going to cause problems.

But so as I envisioned pursuing graduate school as an undergraduate, I didn't think much about the teaching aspect of the profession that I wanted to enter. I'd figured I'd be ok at it, as I really do like to be the center of attention, and I like instructing people about how they should do things and showing them how to do things. But I didn't think much about what made a "good teacher," and I decided whether a teacher was good or not on a pretty intuitive level. Also, what made a good teacher for me was very much dependent upon whether the teacher inspired me to think about stuff I hadn't thought about before and that I wanted to spend time thinking about, and whether they allowed me to pursue the scholarly paths that were interesting to me.

I start with this stuff - how I thought about teaching when I was a student - because I think it's important to note that now that I am an experienced teacher, I realize that "good teaching" involves a lot more than I'd originally thought, and that what makes "good teaching" for the majority of my students can tend to be different from what made "good teaching" for me. Most students - even ones in the major - don't care a whole lot about the scholarly side of things. They like to read, and they like thinking about literature, sure, but they don't necessarily enjoy writing papers, nor do they enjoy reading criticism. They don't have the same motivations that I had as a student, nor do they necessarily need the same things that I as a student needed. And so I've grown as a teacher and changed my practices to respond to their motivations and needs, while (I hope) still leaving room for the other stuff, too.

But every now and again, I encounter students who more closely resemble the student that Crazy was as an undergraduate. And I have to say that there is something really great about getting to be the kind of professor that I most appreciated as a student for those students. Never have I experienced this more intensely than this semester, as I've begun to work closely with Bright, Enthusiastic Student (BES). BES is not one of my "frequent fliers." I'd never taught her in a class before this semester, and I've lucked into working with her because she had an idea for her thesis that closely paralleled my own research interests. A colleague of mine introduced her to me, and that's how this whole thing began.

Now, let me say this: this is pretty much exactly how I was hooked up with my own thesis adviser as an undergrad. And the parallels don't end there. BES's initial idea for her thesis (though it has since developed into something much more awesome) was not unlike the idea that I pursued in my undergrad thesis, and BES's style as a student is also very much like what mine was. From our first meeting, I felt on a very visceral level that I was being given the opportunity to play out my own thesis experience from the other side. Now, that's dangerous in some ways, to feel that. BES is *not* a mini-me. I don't want her to be. And my agenda is not to transform her into that. But there is a serendipity in the fact that this situation has fallen into my lap. I feel as if I've come full circle, finally become the professor that I imagined being when I was 19 years old. And that, I've got to say, is really, really awesome.

But so here is the deal. I've fallen into a situation in which I've been chosen to mentor and to teach a student who is incredibly motivated (and not by a desire to please me so much as by the material), ridiculously smart (I think smarter than I was at that age), and tremendously conscientious. Moreover, our styles of how to work with and relate to one another are really in sync, and so things that I suggest to her to facilitate the process are working without any dissonance or painful effort. She takes small suggestions that I make and she runs with them, doing better than I'd ever hoped she might. And even when there's a bump in the process (which is only just starting, and surely there will be more bumps), it becomes a "teaching moment" from which I think we both emerge feeling like even the "bump" is a positive thing. She's comfortable with being directed by me, and I'm comfortable giving her direction. It feels... natural. It feels like how this sort of project is "supposed" to work, on a gut level.

What's been most interesting to me so far about teaching in such a situation is that it's allowed me to think more clearly about my general practices as a teacher, and that really I'm not so interested in being the center of attention or in "making" the student produce work that fits into a certain paradigm. What I enjoy most is facilitating: giving students the tools to achieve what they want to achieve. I enjoy seeing what they produce with my advice, and I enjoy being surprised by what they come up with. It's easy to overlook the pleasure of that when one is teaching a full class, in which my aims are often mediated by the varying levels of preparedness of my students and in my emphasis on achieving certain "learning outcomes" across the board. The reality of a typical class that I teach is that those things take precedence over the "happy surprises" that make teaching so rewarding for me. It's not that the "happy surprises" don't happen in a regular class, but they are not necessarily my main focus. How I feel about this project with BES is like the "happy surprises" are the main point - the only point.

Part of that is structural, but part of that is about the kind of student she is and how we relate on the level of personality. I've never had the opportunity to explore this aspect of things in a sustained way with a student during my years teaching. Still, there are (exciting) challenges to this experience that I'd not really anticipated in a conscious way. What are those challenges?
  • I find myself being very careful about exerting too much influence over BES's project and ideas. This is not to say that I'm not giving her direction and feedback, but rather that I don't want this to be "my" thesis - at all. And so I find myself being very conscious about how I frame my responses, so that not only are the ideas all hers but also so that she feels like the ideas are all hers. This played out in a recent meeting, in which I perceived a connection rattling around in the background behind what she was saying. Rather than just making the connection for her, I carefully chose a more interrogatory way of responding so that she got to have the "light bulb moment" of discovering the connection for herself. Sure, this took longer than if I had just made the connection for her, but it was such an awesome moment! Her whole face lit up - she actually made me high five her! - and I suspect my face lit up at exactly the same moment that hers did. It was so excellent to see *her* having the idea, as opposed to imposing it upon her. And also the idea? Brilliant.
  • I also find myself being weirdly reluctant to give too much positive reinforcement to ideas of hers that are close to my own interests. This is something I'm going to have to figure out in the coming months, as I think that perhaps it's dumb and potentially counterproductive. It's just I really want her to be her *own* scholar and not some sort of spawn of my own research agenda. One of the best things about my PhD program (which had its flaws, don't get me wrong) is that it is a program that really produces graduates that really are *independent thinkers*. So, for example, while there are common threads that run between my research and my adviser's, at a superficial glance, nobody would think of me as his academic child, I don't think. We don't work on the same authors, we don't publish in the same specific areas. Sure, we are theoretically in sync, but we also have major points of disagreement on some things. And he really facilitated me in my disagreements with him, as opposed to overlaying his own positions or interests onto my work. He let my dissertation be *mine*. I want BES's thesis to be *hers*, and that's so far proving to be a more difficult balance to strike than I'd thought it would be, in part because the ideas of hers about which I'm most enthusiastic are very close to ones that I myself explore in my research, and so on the one hand I think they must be great ideas (natch) but I don't want to dismiss other ideas that might be equally as fruitful that she might pursue, nor do I want to be too wholly positive about ideas that are close to my own that, if I get my head out of my own asshole, might not be as interesting as I like to think they are.
  • I'm also finding that it can be difficult to be critical of a student's work when that student is so totally into it. I don't want to hurt her feelings or dampen her enthusiasm. Even though I know that sometimes one's feelings need to be hurt in order to produce the best work. So, for example, my feedback on her fuller proposal was quite critical, and I found myself feeling badly about it, and I had a hard time striking a balance between giving her the criticism that she needed and being supportive. It turned out fine - when we met she admitted that she knew what my major concerns were going to be when she turned the thing in, and she was grateful for the attentive feedback that I gave - but I did have the unusual experience of feeling a bit guilty for not just loving everything she was thinking. So that's something I'll be working on over the course of this project: becoming more confident that I can support her even as I challenge her, and more confident that this is necessary and not "mean" or "unsupportive." One thing that helped to build my confidence in this area already was her revision of her ideas based on my feedback. She responded to my questions so carefully and with such incredible insight. And this is going to be a much better piece of work for me having responded honestly than it would have been if I hadn't.
So yes, there are challenges, but they are such cool challenges! And yes, taking on this project means more work for me, but it doesn't at all feel like work: it feels like this culminating experience for me, even as the project itself is a culminating experience for the student's undergrad career. And even as I worry for her - for grad school is her ultimate plan, and we all know what a risky proposition that is - I look forward to being able to mentor her beyond this project and into the early stages of her progress into academia. If this project goes the way that I think it will, I suspect that I will do for her what my undergrad adviser did for me: I'll try to get her to submit a proposal for her first conference (perhaps put a panel together with her?) and show her the ropes and introduce her to some people. I might have the opportunity to become a real professional mentor to her - not only a teacher/mentor. That's how excited I am about the work that she's doing. And hell, isn't one of the benefits of having achieved what I've done in the profession - that I'll be in the position to do that? That I'll be in a position to give somebody a leg up, just as others gave me one?


Belle said...

Okay, I have my PhD and all that... but can I just say I want you for my mentor? This is just completely amazing, thoughtful and great; I envy BES.

Nik said...

Makes me want to be an undergrad and have you as my advisor. What great news.

Sisyphus said...

Rock on! This sound so fun and exciting!

saxifraga said...

What a great post and I totally agree with the others. You must be a wonderful advisor. I am still at the point where I identify strongly with students who are very much like I was at an undergrad/grad student and often end up, inadvertently, catering more to their needs than to the rest of the group. It's very inspiring to read how you have pushed yourself across that barrier and how you make an effort to not mentor those students who do behave like you did, into mini-Dr.Crazys. I'm going to bookmark this post and return to it. Thanks for sharing.

Susan said...

Gosh, this made me want to cry. I hope BES knows how lucky she is -- I realize you know how lucky you are. This sounds like teaching at its best.

Maude Lebowski said...

wow! how amazing is that?

i miss teaching. i need to get a job. you inspire me.

Rhapsodysinger said...

What can i say, I am doing my PhD and teaching as a tenured faculty in rural India...but u have touched a chord in me from your different planet...thanks...