Rules of engagement

Teaching is more than just giving information, says Dale Salwak. It's about sharing experiences to help students begin their own journeys of discovery

December 11, 2008

As a child living in Amherst, Massachusetts, I grew up hearing the poetry of Robert Frost. Birches, After Apple-Picking and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, among others, spoke truthfully to me of a world that I knew and of people that I was raised among.

On occasion, Frost would visit a local college, and so one evening my father, an administrator at the nearby university, invited me to a fireside chat that had been arranged for a select number of students and faculty. In my mind's eye I see myself as a ten-year-old sitting cross-legged in my bathrobe, pyjamas and slippers. The expression on my face is bemused. In the background sits the poet, with his big white head and hanging brows, smiling boyishly as he gazes at his audience.

I remember none of his spoken words, of course, but I do remember his tone and the almost palpable sense of connectedness it left me with. Here was a good-humoured, soft-spoken, larger-than-life figure who looked us square in the eyes, who persuaded us of the truthfulness of his words, and who delivered his message in such a way that it seemed as though he was speaking personally to each one of us. It was literally a meeting of the minds.

All my professional life I have attempted to establish that kind of deep connection with my own students. When I succeed, I experience one of the real joys of teaching, a sense of creative fulfilment akin to what Dante Gabriel Rossetti refers to as "a spiritual contact hardly conscious yet ever renewed". Connecting on this level with our students is as much a gift as an instinct, and every teacher has to find his or her own way to make this happen. I suspect some never do. But here is what I have discovered.

As I walk into a classroom, I imagine that the person I care most about is seated in the room. It might be a friend, a spouse, a sibling - someone to whom my soul is knit. During the period, I take in everyone, of course, but I think about that special person and teach to him or her.

This imagined audience of one gives me a focus; it puts a human face on my reason for being there - to share the joy of learning. If I do this consistently, then in time I find myself embracing everybody in the class with similar feelings and thoughts, and they in turn become involved not just with the subject matter, but also with the process and excitement of shared discovery.

For me, this inner audience is similar to the muse, that inner wellspring of creative inspiration that artists have laid claim to for centuries. Some teachers, like some writers or painters or composers, can force their muse, willing it to come forth to help them wrest their work out of the rough, raw materials of their medium. But this has never been my way.

For example, several years ago my dean assigned me to teach an "introduction to Shakespeare" class. I asked for a year to prepare, for I knew it would take that long to rethink and recast the canon in such a way that I could make it meaningful and memorable for my students.

I began by envisaging myself sitting in class as an 18-year-old student, with a limited understanding of the playwright's world. At one time it would have been realistic to expect my students to be acquainted with some of the plays, along with the sonnets and the culture, but I knew this was no longer the case.

I also knew that, although I would be teaching some of the most talented young men and women on campus, I would have to provide that literary and cultural context if they were to understand the plays. I couldn't force this understanding to spring forth full blown from my brow like Athena. Instead, I had to read widely, think deeply, and trust that my approach, ideas and voice would emerge in time.

When I think back on how thoroughly I had to re-explore Shakespeare before I felt I could help my students explore him, I realise that I was responding, unconsciously, to a fundamental question: to whom am I speaking?

The obvious answer is that I am speaking to my students. But I am also in conversation with the many voices that have preceded mine - the authors I've read, the professors I've studied under, the colleagues with whom I've worked.

As a teacher, I am in an ongoing dialogue with my peers and my predecessors. I find that the better I am acquainted with sympathetic or competing voices in scholarship, the more exuberant and wide-ranging my own presentations will be, and the more closely I will connect with the material and therefore with my students.

Every book I discuss reaches back to other books - to the books it answers or quotes from or imitates or steals from. I didn't begin my career at the beginning; I started in medias res, where voices from creators and critics and readers ring out from both past and present.

Another way I have discovered to connect is to rely on questions. One of my history professors in college used this approach. The second day of the semester we arrived having read a chapter in our text, he asked: "Does anyone have any questions about the reading?" No one spoke, and so he said: "Fine, class is over. I'll see you Friday."

Friday arrived; we came to class having read another assignment. Once again he asked: "Does anyone have any questions?" Again, no one spoke, and so again he said: "I'll see you Monday."

Well, by now we began to catch on. When we arrived on Monday, we had not only read the assignment but we had also generated some questions. The entire semester was conducted in this way; it was one of the most inspirational I have ever experienced. Although I don't use this method all the time, some days I do find that answering student questions stimulates more engagement than asking my own.

Serious teachers - by which I mean those we remember, the ones who open our eyes, maybe even our hearts, to things we might never have known without them - put themselves into their work as yet another way to connect. How much we should disclose of ourselves is related to the style and temperament of the teacher, as well as the tone and maturity level of the class. It requires a certain kind of unguardedness, a willingness to take risks, including the risk of making fools of ourselves.

During my first year at the helm, I was reasonably confident with the material, but not at all confident with myself as a teacher, and so I rarely referenced myself in the discussions. It took many years before I understood how the telling of illustrative stories from my own experience could help students by showing my human side as well as reminding them of, or awakening them to, their own vulnerabilities.

Now I can say that I have embraced what Saul Bellow said to a class of young writers at Dartmouth: "When I sit at the typewriter, I open my heart. I try to leave nothing covered, suppressed, out of bounds. I give everything I have to that moment." My goal is to do the same in the classroom, making every class a continual confession of my incurable passion for the subjects I teach.

But I must be careful. Relating a personal experience should not bring attention to myself, but to the subject, to make possible some insight that goes beyond my own small self. If stories from my experiences seem to the students to be merely egocentric, then everything that I do in class comes under suspicion.

Nor do I teach as a wise, mature, finished person who has learnt all the answers, but rather as someone who is still asking questions about myself and about the world, as being still involved in trying to change and find things out. I am not exaggerating when I say that after 35 years of teaching, I feel as if I'm just beginning.

Ultimately, I try to connect with my students by telling the truth - and the truth is that I am not in class merely to impart information or to help them develop skills. I am there to help them to see, to wonder, to understand, just as many of my former professors helped me.

If I take a photograph of a pastoral setting but fail to focus my lens, the results will be blurry. The scene is recognisable but my view of it is not. So with us. Our humanity and our inherent limitations keep us from seeing with clarity. Instead, we see through a glass darkly, says St Paul. Our vision is obscured, says St Augustine. We are wanderers in a world of shadows, says Plato, mistaking the outward appearance of people and things for reality.

Always, however, something is pressing us to reach out beyond the shadows, to face the reality, to view the truth. With one tiny turn of the lens, our blurred vision can snap into focus - and that is where I, as a teacher, come in. My task is to help my students to develop the eyes to see and the ears to hear what is new in the old, what is simple in the complex, what is easy in the challenging, what is mundane in the compelling.

To see is to know. My sophomore biology class taught me that in a special way. The first week of lab the professor gave me a slide with something mounted on it. "Mr Salwak," he said, "examine the specimen under a microscope and write a report on what you see."

So I devoted 50 minutes to studying the slide, wrote a paragraph on what I had seen, and turned it in. The following Monday, the professor returned my assignment. He had written at the top in red ink: "Looking is not seeing. Try again."

The next Friday, I again slipped the slide under the microscope and examined it. This time I saw more and wrote a full page. I turned it in. The following Monday he returned it to me with yet another message: "You're still not seeing. Try again."

This went on for six weeks until at last I had produced three single-spaced pages of observations. The next Monday he returned the paper to me with the words: "Good. Now you're seeing!" We had connected.

My professor could have told me what was there, he could have given me the vocabulary for what I saw, but then I wouldn't have developed on my own the eyes to see. Unfathomable riches are right in front of us - if only we really learn how to use our senses, hearts, minds and souls to delve beyond the surface and really see into what's wondrous about ourselves, our fellow travellers and our shared world.

In this example and many others I have since encountered, the lesson is clear. It is both naive and foolish to think that my students gain total understanding with one glance, one inspection or one reading. The value of studying something very closely over a period of time is that the viewers eventually come to take their eyes off themselves and begin to appreciate the layers of what is in front of them.

A fundamental precept of teaching is that no two classes are ever the same. Each time I have the privilege of standing before a group of students, I learn a bit more about the material, about how to "sell" it, and about how to overcome the fresh challenges that greet me. I also learn more about myself.

Most of all, the chance to connect with my students and the resulting joy when I succeed is part of what lures me into the classroom day after day, night after night.

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