I love my students

by Corey Robin on April 9, 2016

We talk a lot on this blog about pedagogy and other issues related to classroom instruction in the academy. I don’t often participate in those discussions, though I read them avidly, with great interest and appreciation. I suppose it’s because the issues raised there sometimes seem a bit removed from what I encounter at CUNY.  But I posted this post last night on my blog, and spurred on by an appreciative tweet from Henry, I thought I’d share it here. Teaching’s not always like this at CUNY, but it often is. I remember my first semester at Brooklyn College, teaching a nighttime seminar on liberalism and constitutional law. I’ll never forget, about an hour after the class had ended, I walked by the classroom on my way home and there were three students—one from Nigeria, one from Eastern Europe, and one who was African American—still arguing over some passage from On Liberty. It sounds like something out of a movie, and the truth is, it often feels that way. More than 15 years later, I still sometimes fantasize that I’m teaching the next generation of the New York Intellectuals. Only instead of them being the children of East European Jews, they’re from the Caribbean, West Africa, Palestine, Yemen, Turkmenistan. They’re black, they’re Latina, they’re Muslim, they’re working class, they’re Orthodox Jewish, and they come from everywhere.

* * * * * 


I’m not one of those professors who says, “I love my students,” but…I love my students.

This semester, I’m teaching the department capstone seminar. For the first half, I have the students read classics of political economy, from Aristotle through Gary Becker. In the second half, they choose a book about the contemporary political economy, and write an analysis of it through the lens of, or against the grain of, one of our class readings. They also do a class presentation of their final papers, something I haven’t tried since my first year at Brooklyn College.

So tonight was our first night of presentations. One student had chosen as his text Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, which he used to very powerful effect as a critique of Hayek, whom we had read in class. Then, in the middle of our discussion of his paper, another student asked, “After reading Hayek, do you think you can truly value something if you don’t have to pay for it?” Bam, the conversation’s off!

Another student used Aristotle’s Ethics and his Politics as a launching point for Elisabeth Armstrong’s and Laura Hamilton’s Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. She did a great analysis of how Aristotelian hierarchies of labor, leisure, and knowledge are reproduced by colleges and universities today. Then, in our discussion of her paper, another student asks, tentatively, timidly, “What…would happen … if we separated … the economy … from … education?” The class explodes in discussion and debate.

I’m not one of those professors who says, “I love my students,” but…I love my students.

And as much as I complain about everything at CUNY, tonight is one of those nights when I feel truly sorry for those of you who don’t get a chance to teach here.

{ 12 comments }

1

Alan White 04.09.16 at 5:36 am

Thanks for this, at least to express my own lot. Every day and many nights for 35+ years I’ve walked into classrooms expecting the least but most times left with the most. The theater of learning is unpredictable–sometimes you are the protagonist, sometimes you are the audience, sometimes you are the Greek chorus, sometimes you hear that chant back. You bring your best and amazingly so many students bring theirs. You bring your less than best and then they best you, and you respond. But what makes it happen either way is that you care, and prepare as best you can.

But of course you can be exploited by your passions too–the adjunct’s paradox. Teaching can be a drug too–an addictive one that admins can pass out as fixes to keep you strung out over the semesters. I get that. Some of us are just more comfortable with our dealers since they give us just what we want, and we get along (with tenure). But the dealers know they have the stuff we want. Teaching is as seductive as it is rewarding–excellence in it these days is used by too many dealers to keep too many users strung out–probably to the overall good of their students–but not to them. That’s the dark side of this otherwise wonderful endeavor. I wish it were that teaching was something other than subservient to powers that see education as only a commodity.

2

Meredith 04.09.16 at 6:13 am

I put this afternoon’s students in charge of their Horace class because I was going to the memorial service of my mentor, one of the world’s great teachers. We’ll see next week how they did. I complain about everything here at my place, too, and now that I am older, I can joke about “get off my lawn,” but I do and always love my students. As I look forward to retirement I do worry about being cut off from young adults/adolescent mayhem, who have kept me strong and hopeful. Too often, maybe, we teachers despair that we are talking into an abyss. No, we are not. Those little ones (as a new grandmother I am reminded of how tiny and needy and demanding they are at birth) are not an abyss. They are fruits and will be fruitful!

3

js. 04.09.16 at 6:52 am

This is a lovely piece, and thank you. But how for the love of God are you getting through Aristotle through Gary Becker in half a semester!?

4

robotslave 04.09.16 at 10:13 am

they’re from the Caribbean, West Africa, Palestine, Yemen, Turkmenistan. They’re black, they’re Latina, they’re Muslim, they’re working class, they’re Orthodox Jewish, and they come from everywhere.

They are coming from everywhere, that is, *except* from the white, somewhere-above-working-class families that benefited from the previous generation of higher education in America?

Or did you just leave that demographic out, for some reason, in your pean to America’s student body?

5

Ronan(rf) 04.09.16 at 10:36 am

“I suppose it’s because the issues raised there sometimes seem a bit removed from what I encounter at CUNY.”

Serious questions, why is this? Going from your post your students seem very like Harry’s , interested, engaged, smart….the only difference seems to be relatively superficial demographic ones. Why are ideas Harry has for teaching in his class not very much applicable to you (and vice versa)?

6

Corey Robin 04.09.16 at 11:39 am

robotslave: “Or did you just leave that demographic out, for some reason, in your pean to America’s student body?”

That demographic is not well represented at Brooklyn College. I have only three students this term, for example, who are white.

js: We do selections. It’s a capstone seminar where the purpose is to get students to write longer papers on topic of their choosing. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive seminar.

Ronan(rf): Harry and I had a very brief exchange on his last post — about gender issues in the classroom — high up in the thread. I thought he had some excellent explanations for the difference.

7

Bill Murray 04.09.16 at 4:06 pm

But how for the love of God are you getting through Aristotle through Gary Becker in half a semester!?

That only goes from Ar to Be, so really not any distance at all

8

Bill Harshaw 04.09.16 at 4:07 pm

Call me soft-headed but I love the sentiment and the post.

9

Metatone 04.09.16 at 4:45 pm

Nice to read.
I’ve developed a disdain for my students this term.
It’s not good, but there it is. They won, their apathy won.

10

novakant 04.09.16 at 5:13 pm

I have only three students this term, for example, who are white.

But I’m sure they get some love too, no? :)

11

b9n10nt 04.10.16 at 5:00 am

Feelin it @ 9

But in other moments, I delight in my students as well:

High school science. Chemistry. Stoichiometry. There in it, concentrating for the first time on algebraic patters in a sustained applied way. My brightest students can superimpose models of molecular structures and bonding forces.

They’ve done it. They’ve learned chemistry.

12

RNB 04.11.16 at 2:54 pm

“Love teaching” is different from “love the students”; and “love” for the profession is subtly different from “devotion” to it. And then eros is different from agape as is pyar from bhakti. Plus, there is the whole problem of how one could turn baser motives to teach (power, summers off, relative autonomy on the job) through the alchemy of self-deception into higher motives out of which one convinces herself or himself to be acting. And I keep on thinking that I should re-read my battered, twenty-five-year old copy of The Symposium. I think I once thought Socrates was not motivated by eros or at least eros as conventionally understood. But I don’t remember.

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