A Word to the Wise…and Otherwise

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun. –Ecclesiastes 1:9.

Yesterday marked the first day of classes here at Southwestern Adventist University for a new school year, and once again I feel a bit of apprehension as I go into the classroom. One of the best kept secrets it that many professors–those who aren’t full of themselves–have a secret fear that someday the world will learn that they really don’t know that much. I started teaching 15 years ago, sure that my 20 years in publishing and public relations would provide fodder for a lifetime of teaching–at least as much lifetime as I had left. And yet, teaching calls for me to address areas that I really don’t have that much experience or knowledge in.

That’s what happens in life–and education. When you are a teenager, you figure (1) that you have life all figured out, and (2) your parents don’t know anything. As you get older, you realize (1) life is not as black and white as you thought it was, and (2) your parents know more than you thought they did. Higher education is like that too. As you go up the ladder, you are called on to learn more and more about less and less, until when you get your PhD, you become an absolute authority on a very small area of knowledge.

There are teachers on campus who go into the classroom, convinced that their job is to expound eloquently from their vast collection of knowledge, and it is up to the students to make sense of it. To me, that’s not teaching. That’s pontificating. Teaching has to do with two-way communication, and in many cases is more of the teacher listening than speaking. I can’t guarantee that my students learn in my class, or even pass the class. But I can do my best to try and determine what method is best for helping them understand.

And so my apprehension in entering the classroom may be valid. I may know less than my students think I do. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help them learn. Because learning is something that the teacher and student do together.

It’s been said that you really can’t teach another person how to write. And I agree with that. All you can do is tell them what has worked for you. It is up to the student to practice writing, over and over again, ad nauseum, until they figure out what works for them. Just as I hope my children don’t make the same mistakes I did (and they probably will), I hope that my teaching will help my writing students avoid pitfalls in their own writing careers.

And to a larger degree, letting the student figure it out for his or herself should be the focus of a lot of our writing. We can guide them, we can give them evidence, we can try to persuade our readers, but we shouldn’t make the decisions for them. That’s the value of “show, don’t tell.” Those who decide for themselves (preferably in the direction you want them to go) are more convinced than those who are told what to believe or how to act.

As usual, I am rambling. Time to get ready to teach class. One of the things they don’t tell you when you begin teaching is that the teacher often learns as much or more than the students do.

But that’s OK with me. I always loved being a student.