The first time I walked into the classroom, I felt my knees collapse. I was a 24-year-old ruffian with a stack of bleached hair and occult-shop human bone earrings, starting my PhD at the University of Toronto . And I would be teaching Effective Writing for Engineers.
At the time engineering students were the sworn enemies of arts students and could not have been a straighter group of foursquare, slide-rule-gripping jocks. I remember walking up the many stairs to the elevated teaching platform, hanging over the podium like a bat (a posture I still use) and nervously trying to explain commas. "They, ah, precede conjunctions," I told them, having had to look this up the night before.
"Conjunctions like 'and' or 'but'," I added, pompously. Then one of them said, "But what about ham and eggs? There's no comma there!" And another, and another yelled, "Yeah! What about that?"
So I did what any professional instructor would do: I began to sob uncontrollably.
"I don't know!" I told them, "I'm sorry!"
"It's okay, Miss," they all said. "It's okay, we don't care," they consoled me, anxiously.
That day I realized that students were potentially terrifying, and potentially terrified—that one of the largest obstacles between teachers and students is a failure to recognize each others' humanity.
Twenty years later, I still try to remember, every time I walk into a room filled with sullen-looking students, that we are all nervous, and that I can use this emotion to our advantage. I have not mentioned that, over the years, I have developed into a fierce professor whose first lecture is, essentially, a long peroration about what I loathe and will not allow in my class.
"No lateness, no late papers, no cellphones, no checking e-mails and so on," I begin. "No talking when I or anyone else is talking, or I will separate you." So far, tough but fair. "No hot food of any kind, no forming of cliques and no in-class romances."
"I hate love," is how I always end this speech.
I then add, "I just want us to have a good time."
This shockingly contradictory speech—combined with the threat that, given a dearth of discussion, I will treat the class as a talk show, inviting student "guests" to sit beside me and discuss the texts—usually assures far better behaviour than plain whining, the only strategy used by some of my colleagues.
A good student will listen and a bad one will not, and that is the difference between an A and an F, and always will be.
If, for example, one of my students shows up on time, eating an inoffensive bran muffin and is prepared to discuss the text, I will then deign to memorize the name I have them wear on a gigantic tag, every class. If another student shows up late, mumbling some nonsense about "Whitby" and "GO Trains," then asks, "Mrs. Cosby, do we have to read ALL the books?" I draw cruel pictures of them in my notebook, and answer their question coolly, referring to them as "Red sweater," or "Nose ring."
Yet, not every student has the stones, or occasionally the ego, to talk often and knowledgeably. Several of my best students over the last few years—where I have been teaching in the Liberal Studies department at the Ontario College of Art & Design —have been almost-mute, pathologically shy kids who flush scarlet when asked to pass the attendance book. I ask my class straight out, and soon, whether anyone is uneasy talking in class, and then try to keep an eye out for those who tremblingly raise their hands. I will also look more closely at the very quiet students' work, and if it is excellent, try to carry on alternative dialogues with them, through lengthy marginalia, or stop in the hall and effuse until they are, again, bright red but smiling.
There are pedagogical strategies, of course: my own, and odd. I do have little talk shows; I have every student give a seminar, and each is required to use visual and sonic aids, and I strongly encourage them to wear costumes and furnish the class with "delicious snacks." The sugar rush usually gets us past the two-hour hump in a three-hour class, and it's hard to forget a student who bakes you "Bloody Cupcakes!" for a presentation on a horror novel.