Saddle up and sing out

November 17, 1995

Having been on a sabbatical from teaching (1994/95) in favour of research and writing, I thought that, after 15 months away, I would be longing to return to the classroom. And yet, as summer vacation wound down, instead of looking forward to the new semester, I found myself fantasising about another year on my own and imagining all those additional things I could accomplish, if only. . .

Such thinking seriously worried me, for I had decided upon an academic career, most of all, in order to teach. I started to wonder what was happening to me (besides middle age). However, at the end of my first week back on the job, a couple of delightful reassuring things happened.

It was after 10.30 in the evening. I was waiting for my wife to finish reading the day's New York Times so we could retire together. Stretched out on the living-room carpet (my usual television viewing position), I was half-watching a late-night talkshow hosted by the comedian Jay Leno.

As usual Leno was bantering with the show's bandleader when, all of a sudden, the bandleader stopped him and said: "My pencil broke, what can I do?" On cue, Leno replied with a straight face: "No problem. Bring out the pencil sharpener!" and from backstage emerged the mature and beautiful fashion model Lauren Hutton. Renowned for the gap between her two front teeth, Hutton took the pencil, put it in her mouth, and sharpened it to a point; after which she returned it and took a celebrity's bow.

When the laughter and applause died down, Leno turned to the audience and gleefully exclaimed: "What a great job I've got." To my happy surprise and relief, I answered him, spontaneously blurting out: "Me too!" I went up to bed thinking about what had just transpired. Besides the amusement of talking to the television I found myself thinking back 20 years to how desperately eager I had been to become a teacher-scholar. Actually, when I first began postgraduate studies I resisted the idea of teaching.

While I was pursuing a PhD in the mid-1970s (having given up a brief but promising career as an international banker on Wall Street), I was not really sure if I could tolerate the pressures and weirdness of academy (or, indeed, forever being among the strange company of academics). But when the opportunity presented itself to serve as a graduate-student instructor I found the experience exhilarating and I discovered that you really do not know something well until you have tried to teach it to someone else.

Unfortunately, like many of my generation I faced a bleak job market; there just were not enough positions to go around in 1976 (nor have there been since). But, after a year essentially unemployed, I did secure a one-year post and then a tenure-tract appointment.

Even now - possessed of a titled professorship - one of my worst recurring nightmares involves being unemployed, not only because I have a family to support but, also, because it would mean being banished from the classroom.

My late-night thoughts also took me back to my first university job interviews (a truly bizarre set of experiences, including encounters with antileftism and antisemitism) and, then, to the question posed to the new dons by the dean of liberal arts at the Minnesota campus where I had latched on to the one-year post. She wanted to know what exactly each of us aspired to accomplish through our teaching.

I was somewhat startled by her query and I became all the more anxious when each of my fellow junior colleagues replied rather easily, specifically, and articulately, implying that they all had given good thought to the matter.

I, however, was stumped; I hesitated, a bit embarrassed. Finally, I admitted that I really was not very sure about what I hoped to achieve because, as I saw it, any information I had to pass along could be had from reading books. All I could do, I figured, was to be as engaging and enthusiastic as possible, in the hope that it would be contagious.

(Years later, on a visit to historians Dorothy and E. P. Thompson while they both were teaching here in the States for a year, Edward humourously remarked to me that his American undergraduate students were making "unfair demands" on him. "How can I teach them anything, if all they're interested in are 'the facts'?" he said smilingly).

I went on to explain to the dean and the others present that when I sat down and thought about who had been my very best teachers, I came up with no single pedagogical type but, instead, a diverse variety of figures.

The professors who were really able to excite me about a subject, and who incited me to learn on my own, were, seemingly, eccentrics.

By that, I did not mean they were simply dramatic actors, eager to entertain the assembled multitude. Rather, I meant they were evidently committed to their subjects, intensely so, and incapable of keeping their thoughts and ideas to themselves.

Moreover, they were at the same time intellectually irresistible and so compelling as to lead you to believe that you had an obligation to join them in their endeavours. You left them feeling guilty (and sorry) that you had other things to attend to.

Tired from the week's classroom labours (one forgets how exhausting lecturing can be), and hoping I would soon be asleep, I flipped on a bedside light, fumbled for pen and paper, and jotted down "re Mills" to remind me to look again at C. Wright Mills's The Sociological Imagination (1959).

Mills stated it all so smartly: "To some extent, students are a captive audience; and to some extent they are dependent upon their teacher, who is something of a role model to them. His foremost job is to reveal to them how a supposedly self-disciplined mind works. The art of teaching is in considerable part the art of thinking out loud but intelligibly. . . in a classroom the teacher ought to be trying to show how one man thinks - and at the same time reveal what a fine feeling he gets when he does it well."

The following Monday I returned to my three classes, reinvigorated and all the more self-conscious about the task confronting me. In each instance, I began by asking my students to tell me just what they thought my role was as their professor. Their answers were varied: "make learning fun"; "challenge us"; "fill us with all the information you can"; "prepare us to get good jobs". Given the world as it is, I agreed that these were all understandable expectations.

However - to be completely immodest about it - there was one remark which I especially appreciated and which gave me at least a semester's worth of inspiration.

One of the social science students on what is my favourite course, Historical Perspectives on Social Change, confessed to me that her previous experiences in historical studies had "totally" put her off the subject; but she added that I was now making things difficult and she might have to reconsider, for she had never before met anyone "so intense and enthusiastic" about history.

I went home that evening, riding high, and humming: "Back in the saddle again. . ."

Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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