I went into class today tired and sick. I was suffering under an impending respiratory infection, and I didn’t want to use my voice too much. I went in prepared with a video – an excellent ethnographic documentary – fully intending to use it for discussion.
But a few moments after I sat down and made a few comments – just to nudge students in the direction of the topic before I showed them the video – I realized that the class was on fire. From beginning to end, an hour and a quarter, the discussion never flagged. The students were bright-eyed, eager, and reflective. Sometimes high participation means an excess of irrelevant but personal comments. Not today. The comments were deep, cerebral, and pertinent. And they were non-stop.
I kept thinking, I should cut this discussion short and pop in the video. But I knew, too, that the students were thinking, thinking hard and eagerly, creatively, on the topic (relativism and neutrality). Students aren’t a mechanical puzzle: you don’t put in all in the ingredients, do your job, and walk out. Teaching is more organic than that – and more unpredictable. I teach three sections of the same course, and often I tell myself I will reduce my workload by doing the same prep and the same tricks for each section. But I can’t. It doesn’t work that way. Each group is different. Each group responds to a different kind of magic. There is nothing uniform about it.
Frequently, I walk into class with a plan that seems brilliant, but the energy just isn’t there. The flame doesn’t burn. I walk out, sometimes, disappointed and sorrowful, irrationally depressed, that the energy wasn’t there. A good class is like a high. I’ve been a teacher and a public speaker for a long time, off and on, and my work relies on igniting the energy in the room. I do not speak independently of my audience. I speak with them.
This high is addictive. The highs remind me of when I first started the zikr (devotions) in my Sufi tariqa (order). The high was instantaneous, intoxicating. It increased, and then, after some time, it stopped. I felt a sinking sense of loss, as if I had lost a treasure. But I hadn’t lost. My shaikh told me it was because I had plateaued. The intoxication is easy, he explained. The control and balance of steadfast work is hard.
Not all teaching yields a high like today’s class did. But as a teacher, I must continue to prepare, exert myself, learn, read, and research new materials and methods – regardless of the returns by way of energy and excitement. … Well, not regardless. -After all, harvesting energy from my students (I sound like a vampire) enables me to do better and more. We harvest energy from our students because teaching – good teaching – drains enormous quantities of energy. One-directional instruction demands that you prepare an essay – a readable essay, to be sure, but an essay – and then you read it aloud, and then ask, Any questions? There may be advantages, especially in some areas of study, in the old lecture style of teaching. I couldn’t do it myself. Even in my public speaking engagements when I have spoken for an hour without interruptions, I draw upon the energies in the room. Is there any other way?