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.
Teaching at an art university is, of course, a little different than at other schools, because the students take required LS classes more because of need than desire. And it is daunting, occasionally, lecturing to 40 students who would rather be painting or blow-torching something, yet I have tried to use their cosmic boredom to my advantage.
I am most interested, and always have been, in teaching students to fuse their creative and critical faculties, and over the years I have devised assignments toward inspiring excellence in both.
Going way back to that engineering class, I assaulted their particular boredom with essay writing and mechanics by demanding they use their skills directly. "You are commissioned to design a bust of your dean in the style of Praxiteles. Discuss your methodology," ran one assignment. Another: "Defend your notoriously misogynistic newspaper, The Toike Oike, with vigour and flair."
As with every one of my classes, I received some uninspired efforts but largely energetic ones, and was surprised, of course, by the quietest—and as it turned out, the funniest—student's work.
I am a writer, and not a conventional one. I very plainly discourage students from using the "Introduction w/cogent thesis statement, ABCD, Conclusion" model that brain-dead high school teachers inflict on them. A better plan is to familiarize yourself (I hand out questionnaires) with your students' tastes and skills, then encourage them to look to what excites them for inspiration, whether that is a graphic novel or a TV show or a video game or a sci-fi novel or a six-foot reproduction of a molecule.
This year, as with my first, I had a revelation. I was reading a stupid, prepared lecture about Gothic literature and how it relates to Hansel and Gretel and Nightmare on Elm Street, and I stopped and threw it on the floor.
"This is it," I told the obviously frightened students. This is the moment all of us profs dream of and dread.
"I got nothing," I said. "I can't read this stuff any more."
A former professor of mine used to compare his head-of-the-class isolation to being like a little bird on a branch. I paced around for a while, then thought of my friend. I opened my mouth and started singing.
Our nerves quieted and we carried on, bridging the gap between the speaker and listener, the teacher and student, the nervous and the nervous, palpating together.
OCAD professor Lynn Crosbie is also an author, poet and Globe and Mail columnist.
PROF. CROSBIE'S 10 CLASSROOM RULES (UNLESS C- IS A GRADE YOU STRIVE FOR)
1 Use your professor's title, unless she or he asks you to do otherwise. Do not write impertinent e-mails to your professor that begin "Yo, Bob," or adopt an in-class address such as "Dudey."
2 Do not write your professor a variation of the following e-mail: "I wasn't there for a few weeks. What did I miss?" Your prof is not your assistant, and if he or she does respond politely, rest assured darts are being thrown at an image of your head.
3 Do the reading. Never complain that work in another, far more important class is stopping you from doing so.
4 Show up prepared, with at least one question written down to blurt out, if necessary. Shopping for shoes online during class, napping or openly reading club listings make you a target of your prof's wrath.
5 Make sure that your grandparents stop dying, all at once and during finals. Take CPR if necessary.
6 Never start an anonymous campaign against your prof. He or she will know it is you, and this sort of cowardice must be unlearned early in life. The same goes for resorting to writing "Boring fatso" on Rateyourprofessors.com.
7 Sit in the front of the class. The back, as with high school, is reserved for slackers and shrinking violets who are not noticed when participation marks are being calculated.
8 Try not to pick angry, demeaning fights with the person marking your papers. Is this so hard to understand?
9 Agitate until you have your professor's attention. If you wish to propose alternative assignments, learn more about the texts or simply make yourself known. Would it kill you to bring flowers?
10 Assume the impossible: your professor is a human being with feelings and a life. He or she would not mind being approached from that sensibility. But he or she is not your friend, and never forget that. Keep the feelings to a minimum: We are not equipped to discuss your bulimia, suicidal ideation or devastating breakup with a pole dancer, and can and should not attend your keggers.