What Do You Have To Teach?
The act of teaching — the art of teaching — could not be more crucial for the maintenance of our culture
A few years ago, not long before the pandemic began, I made the decision to stop teaching and become a full-time writer. I was a little hesitant to give up my affiliation with the university and its creative writing program, but I also knew I was done. I had reached the point where many teachers arrive, the burned-out feeling that I was repeating myself and not enjoying the students and the classroom as I once had. I had been teaching in some form or other since I was 23. It was time to stop.
The past few years have been very productive writing years for me, so I don’t regret my decision. And yet, I’ve recently been missing teaching. Missing the stimulating interchanges about writing with the students. Missing the challenge of generating exercises to charge their creative thinking. Missing the performative moments of holding forth in the classroom when I had something important to tell them. Missing their visits to my office hours where I talked with them one-on-one about their writing challenges or their personal problems. I’m remembering how much I loved teaching various subjects — all writing and film-related and always about storytelling — at different institutions.
I wish I could still teach easily, but not having a speaking voice makes that challenging. The last class I taught was a one-off when an ALS researcher, a neuroscientist I met on Twitter, asked me to speak to her PhD students in a class called “Finding Your Voice as a Scientist.” My speech was already seriously compromised then, but the students were prepared for that, and I knew I had things to tell them that they would find useful. We all hung in there, and I am grateful to those students for making the effort to understand my speech, for appreciating what I had to say, and for making me feel that I belonged there. I don’t know exactly what they took away from that class, but I learned about the importance of showing up and trying, no matter what.
The teaching profession is not highly valued in our culture. Perhaps full professors at esteemed universities who are called upon to pontificate on TV news shows are accorded…