Life classes for a student who died

Duncan Wu delights in a generous-hearted reminder of the humanity inherent in teaching

August 28, 2008

Each chapter of Dale Salwak's Teaching Life is addressed to Kelly, a former student of the author's, who died at the age of 24 in 1978. It imagines the academic path Kelly might have followed, advising her on good teaching practice. Although geared to the American higher education system, the book contains some excellent pointers for British academics as well. Nearly halfway through, Salwak subtly alters direction. While continuing to address Kelly, he turns from the nuts and bolts of teaching to consider his own research career, in particular his study of Barbara Pym and bittersweet dealings with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. As he does so, he continues to offer his view of the academic life, its pitfalls and rewards. Chapters include advice on marriage, the deaths of parents and the benefits of reading.

Even a dry account of this book is going to make it sound pious and not a little earnest - as indeed it is, and there will be some who will object to that. For myself, I found it one of those rare things - a likeable, generous-hearted book, containing the lessons of a lifetime. And I can't think of anyone who wouldn't benefit from hearing what it has to say. In some respects Salwak is old-fashioned, but I find that the most heartening thing about him. At a time when it is almost politically incorrect to note errors in a student's use of the English language, he is capable of remarking: "Please don't misapply the word like (as in, 'I'm, like, going to tell you about the exam'), or use the word goes when you mean says, or raise your voice at the end of the sentence that is not a question, or conclude a statement with the word whatever." What's the point of this? "Communication establishes a bond, a tie to another human being; undermining communication ultimately undermines humanity."

Salwak offers a timely reminder of the humanity inherent in the teaching process - something easily forgotten when one feels dragged down by bureaucracy, research pressures and other aspects of the job. It is evident, for example, in Salwak's commitment to direct, face-to-face communication, which makes him distrust technology.

At one point he chastises a professor for absenting himself from the classroom, leaving his students to listen to a tape instead. Elsewhere, he asks: "Why does a student have to be in the classroom at all if the teacher relies on a PowerPoint presentation? He or she might just as well be given a printout to read at home." There's nothing fuddy-duddy about this. The point is that there's no substitute for what takes place between student and tutor.

"Pour all of yourself into the work," he advises. "Most days you will leave campus emotionally and mentally exhausted because teaching is a giving out - of yourself, of your knowledge and understanding, and of the truth."

I often found myself nodding vigorously in agreement with him. And at one point I was pleased to find him putting into words something I've often felt but never heard said by anyone else: "After all these years of teaching, I feel as if I'm just beginning."

I don't agree with everything Salwak says. For instance, I'm not sure it's a good thing for students to pretend to know things, as he appears to advise; I would prefer them to feel secure enough to admit ignorance. And at one point he describes how he tolerated the presence in his class of a woman who attended solely to "make sure you stay on the mark"; personally, I'd have advised her to move on. But these are trivial issues compared with most of his guidance, which readers will find invariably helpful. The volume's second half is a sort of autobiography. It is no less fascinating for that, and Salwak's memoir of Amis and Larkin makes instructive reading for anyone who wishes to study living writers. As he reveals, such research can be rewarding, as well as unexpectedly problematic.

This is an invaluable book for the experienced eye it casts over the lot of the modern academic, but most of all for what it has to say about how to teach - the most important part of our job.

Teaching Life: Letters from a Life in Literature

By Dale Salwak

University of Iowa Press

200pp, £15.50

ISBN 9781587296307

Published 15 April 2008

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