Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Teaching

This week I started teaching a college seminar, "Writing about the Theatre," at SF State. I've never taught at the college level before, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I think I imagined that I would feel like I'd arrived—"Now I've begun my real career; now I'm a grown-up!" Lecturing sounds like a real profession, after all: I create a curriculum. I lead discussions. I (will) grade papers. Young adults listen to what I say and write it down. They're polite to me. And I'm not much older than they are.

But I don't feel much change in my life. Being a teacher is very similar to being a student: Preparing for a seminar is like doing homework or studying for a quiz. You still read books and take notes. You still go to school. For me, it's even the same trip, and not just to the same school, but to the very same classroom where I was a student. It's as if rather than having to write a paper once in a while, I simply have to give a presentation every week.

I've often thought I was born to teach. I've been an English tutor for the past three years, I've been leading study groups since I was in grade school, and all of my mom's relatives were or are teachers. Teaching is like getting paid to hang out with people in the best context ever: when it is incumbent on the group to dispense with fluff and bullshit, to discuss not gossip but ideas, and to challenge one another. I've long thought I would teach at a high school. I love how students at that age are figuring out who they are and are still open to new experiences in a way that adults are not. But every time I get close to considering it seriously, I encounter harrowing data about California public schools. Nothing could persuade me to teach an English class of forty students.

So when this SFSU opportunity emerged, I worried I would be in over my head. 9th-grade English this is not. I don't have a Ph.D., I haven't published anything, and I wouldn't even call myself a scholar or an expert. I'm a learner—but I think teaching is the best way to learn. That's probably why I always wanted to run so many study sessions when I was younger. Reading is so leisurely, and paper-writing, as one of my students on Monday so pithily put it, is "for teachers"—not for the writers. But to teach is to synthesize, to decide, to commit—it is to force yourself to be clear and explicit about what you know and what you value and what you do not. In short, it's active, personal, and ever-significant.

I hope that in teaching a class called "Writing about the Theatre," my own writing will improve. I hope my students will spur me to grow and I them. But most of all, I hope I can get rid of this idea that my real life, my real job, is always around the corner, ever receding into the future, something to be prepared for. I want to talk myself into believing that I'm already living the dream right now.


  1. I'd take your class in a heartbeat!

  2. Oh Ben, if only you could... teach it for me...