Thursday, July 16, 2020

When Your Students Are Smarter Than You Are


When I first became a university philosophy professor, almost thirty years ago, by the end of the first week of my first graduate seminar I had realized two things: 1) Some of the students in the class were smarter than I was; and 2) Some of the students in the class knew more stuff about philosophy than I did. 

This was not a situation to inspire a feeling of confidence, let alone competence, in a fledgling professor.

At first I felt that this whole new career had been a terrible mistake. But then I drew comfort from a bumper sticker I had seen: "I may be slow, but I'm ahead of you." There was only one sense in which I was ahead of these smarter and more knowledgeable students, but it was not an unimportant one: I was the teacher and they weren't, simply because I had completed a Ph.D. degree and they hadn't yet.

Being Dr. Claudia didn't mean much in terms of my IQ or store of knowledge, but it did mean that I had jumped through a fairly daunting hoop, so I now knew something about how to be a successful hoop-jumper. I had learned perseverance, and the art of patient plodding, and most of all, I had practice in defeating the demons of self-doubt.

So I think I became a decent enough teacher and also became, if I may say so, an awfully good mentor. My specialty was helping students who were trying to write their dissertations JUST GET THE DARNED THING DONE. It doesn't sound like a lot, but believe me, it is.

Fast forward three decades. I'm now teaching an Advanced Creative Writing Tutorial in children's literature at Hollins University (pictured above because I love the campus so even though the program had to be moved online this COVID summer). I quickly realized that some of my students are better writers than I am, more insightful critics than I am, and (this one is especially sobering) better teachers than I am (I know this because the students are all leading craft workshops).

Once again, I could call on the mantra from that reassuring bumper sticker: "I may be slow, but I'm ahead of you." After all, I've had forty years of publishing experience, with sixty books to my credit. So I can say THAT about myself.

But this time I'm drawing comfort from a different source. My book group recently read The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, but actually written by Douglas Carlton Abrams, who spent a fascinating week with these two deeply spiritual human beings and shared their conversations. In one chapter, Archbishop Tutu says that God uses each of us in our own way: "even if you are not the best one, you may be the one . . . who is there." This leads Abrams to reflect on why, out of all the (many more qualified) journalists in the world, he should be the one conducting the interviews with these two great men. He then decides, "whether I was the best one or not, I was the one who was there."

My current students could each teach their own wonderful creative writing course, and if enrolled in it, I would learn a great deal. But for this particular course, I happen to be the teacher - not because I'm smarter or better or older or wiser-  but just because I'm here: on the Hollins payroll, given the privilege of teaching a class in partnership with these wonderful writers.

Sometimes it's enough just to be the one who's here.

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