Does Teaching Make a Difference?

So, I’ve been teaching for a number of years now, and I’ve picked up a couple of interesting insights. Some useful and others, probably not. But what I have discovered is that even though there are the momentary successes, a lot of the discipline involves very frustrating results. Let me explain:

I’ve been teaching in college for a bit longer than I realized (it tends to happen when you just chalk up the years). I started out teaching political science (where I did my doctorate work), and then mid-road I decided to go into communications instead. Now, I mostly teach public speaking, which is often referred to as the scariest course a student will ever take. Ask them. They’ll tell you exactly that.

But I’m hitting that point where I’m starting to reflect back on some of my years and asking: Has this teaching ever really made a difference?

If you look at evaluations that students turn in every semester, a pattern of responses sort of emerges. “He was a great teacher”, “I learned a lot”, “He made me laugh, which made me enjoy the course more”, “He has high standards, but he’s fair” and my personal favorite: “I took the class by accident and didn’t need it, but I stayed because I really liked the teacher.”

Yeah, these are all great evaluations, but after patting oneself on the back, I started to wonder if sometimes it appears that I’m more of an entertainer than an educator. Fortunately, I haven’t hit the point some teachers do where they remember their teaching experiences as adult day care, but I have started to feel that much of my teaching has been a competition with handheld devices and smart phones. Put a computer screen in front of a student, and the professor quickly gets drowned out.

When I first started teaching (like I said, it was political science), I remember coming home and complaining all of the time that young people don’t seem to know anything about politics or government these days. A German friend of mine, who also went on to get her doctorate in the discipline, sat down with me for dinner one night before she said: “If they don’t know about politics, isn’t it you job to make them know?”

For the longest time, I bought into her philosophy, realizing that if previous instructors didn’t push the knowledge onto them, I would do so myself. In the beginning, I tried doing it by mass cramming, which I quickly discovered was the worst way possible. People can remember things by rote memorization, but they’re quickly going to forget it, which I suspect is how a lot of students grew up learning, and a huge part of the reason why retention hasn’t been one of their strongest skills.

So, I switched tactics and began to do what I do best: Tell stories. I’m a novelist. If you actually know who I am, you know that’s my passion, and you may have even read one of my novels somewhere down the line. That’s always been a joke with me because I have a mailing list that has more followers than I have ever known in my lifetime of meeting people, yet I have zero interactions with any of them, so I sometimes suspect they’re all phantom people who don’t really exist. But that’s another story.

But the point is that I tell stories, and I tend to do it well. So, started teaching in a process that involves narrative elements. I wouldn’t just tell people the structure of Congress; I would tell stories that happen in Congress that causes the institution to react the way it does to certain historical elements in time. I was supposed to teach the statistics of political ramifications, so I would do it by telling the stories of the people who caused thinking in people to be reflected in the numbers that were generated in those specific statistics. I always found that to be a lot more interesting. As an aside, people do not realize how fascinating the stories are that make up the history of why politics are what they are today. But again, that’s another story.

Eventually, my research brought me to explore communications instead of political science (for brevity, I discovered that I was searching for why people did the things they do and realized the answers were in the way people talk to each other rather than in how people naturally respond to each other…different concepts of different fields). And I continued my teaching approach in this discipline as well. Again, I observed how little knowledge young people have these days, but after all of these years, I have started to suspect that young people have always had this little knowledge, but I’m not young any more, so I only see things through my own type of eyes. The real difference, after all of these years, in a sort of Socratic realization, is that the only difference between me and a lot of younger people is that I have a desire to know what I don’t know, and I’m bothered whenever I encounter someone who just wants the knowledge he or she has to know.

But I suspect this is a quandary from which a lot of professors suffer as well.

Which begs my original question: Does teaching actually make a difference? Are we instilling knowledge that benefits the majority of students we educate, or are we wasting our time (and theirs)? Or is there something else going on that kind of escapes many of us as we emerge into our middle ages of being professors, wondering if it was all worth it?

The answer may actually emerge from much older knowledge than just ourselves. I think back to the origins of knowledge, or thinking, and I often find myself in a speaking circle, listening to the words of someone like Socrates. We all know him as this wizened, old man who taught Plato and many other youths before being condemned for making people think. But at some point, he was just some old guy hanging out with young people, asking them questions and leading them to potential answers. Bad characterizations of him often treat him like a rude, gotcha debater, but I suspect that he was probably that irascible professor you took who always made it seem like you never had the right answer, but you kept studying harder just to try to impress him once, even if it took you years to finally do it. I encountered that same person in grad school the first time when I kept trying to both understand political philosophy and impress my professor at the same time, but just couldn’t do it because no matter what I said, she never seemed to approve. Until she did. It sort of changed my education when it finally happened.

I imagine that was the sort of moment that Plato had one day with his impossible teacher, the one that impressed him so much that he spent the rest of his life writing entire philosophies that Socrates was always the star, so that we know more about Socrates even though he has never written a single word that anyone of any later age has been allowed to read. I sometimes suspect that if Socrates would have read Plato, he might have even said: “Yeah, but you didn’t get this one thing right. Try again.”

And sometimes, I think that’s a secret clue of education, someone pushing you to that next step that doesn’t seem to end even after you’ve finished with your education. Sometimes, to this day, I find myself researching something, writing something, or even reading about something, and I think: “What would this professor have talked about when thinking about this?” Or, I might just examine something and think, “How can I best serve those who taught me by taking this argument to its next level?” And if I fail, then I don’t cry about it but then try to find new ways of looking at it so that I might not fail the next time.

I kind of hope that I’ve imparted a sense of that to students I have taught, but like my many mentors of the past, I will probably never know. Which brings me to the original questions: Did it ever make a difference?

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

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