Do as I say and not as I did …

by I.A. Isherwood

In the somewhat awkward moments before class began yesterday, I had a student with a laptop open tell me that she had just emailed me her paper that was due at the start of class. I said that was fine. She then clarified and told me that she didn’t just finish it, but was only emailing it to me for deadline. I said that I didn’t care whether she had just finished it or not and that there were lots of times I finished things at the last minute. She said, “I find that hard to believe.”

This got me thinking a little bit about the ruse of perfection in my profession. There is a wide gulf, I think, between how scholars think of themselves and who students think we are. There is an assumption, I think, that if you are a college teacher, that you have always done things the right way. Perhaps this is something that we cultivate in the advice we give students, repetitive advice, about the perils of procrastination, about revision, about time and thoughtfulness, about care and attention to detail. Much of what we tell students is pure idealism – we know this – but we still say it anyway.

Don’t let the tweedy facade fool you …

NPG x45735; Alan John Percivale Taylor by Walter Stoneman

As an undergraduate I procrastinated and turned in things that I still feel sheepishly guilty about. Sometimes, I didn’t even . . .  gasp . . . do the reading. In short, I did the same things that many most of my students do now. Sure, I was a good student, but one who was far from perfect.

College is a messy time: it is a period of great intellectual awakening for some (and it was for me), but it is also a period of maturation, where you make new friends, personal mistakes, and learn to manage your time (and emotions!) in strange ways. It is a period of growing-up and with that comes mistakes, often repeated, but learned from later if unrealized at the time.

So now when I tell students to get ahead on things, to be thorough, to revise and repeat revising, to do the reading, to listen carefully, to not stay up all night screwing around, etc., I am really telling them to learn from my mistakes as much as their own, though, knowing that they will still have to make their own mistakes to get anything meaningful out of them.

I tell them these things because I know that they can push themselves and do better. The best teachers I had were those who made me want to work harder – my college professors made me examine the way I worked and become a much better student, worker, and more responsible human – and those professors are the reason I became a teacher.  And part of what we’re in the business of doing is not only making you better scholars, but helping shepherd in your adulthood. Adulthood = Responsibility.

The purpose of this blog is to narrow the wide desk between student and teacher (but not to eliminate it). It is to lift the curtain a bit so that you can see that we are fallible people, who get things right, but often get things wrong too. Essential to that is the rather obvious confession that we are not perfect beings, but in fact, are a lot closer to you than you (or we) would like to admit.

That being written, make sure to get ahead on the reading for next week.