MAXWELL: What had changed was Bill Maxwell
1/15/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
In several columns I filed as the 2002 visiting professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, I expressed a renewed love of teaching. Several readers, two of them university professors, asked me to explain the transformation from loathing classroom teaching to loving it again.
I resigned as an English and journalism professor nine years ago to write full time for the St. Petersburg Times. I returned to the classroom after Angelo State invited me to teach literature and journalism last semester.
A Ball State University professor, who reads my column online, asked: “What happened during the nine years you were away? What renewed you? Did the kids change? Did the system change? What?”
The students did not change. They are basically the same: conservative and not prone to taking political and intellectual risks. Oh, sure, fewer of them major in business, but they are still focused on making a lot of money. No, the system did not change. Academic politics are academic politics.
What had changed was Bill Maxwell.
After nine years of being away from the classroom and writing for a living, my attitude toward learning had fundamentally changed. I did not discover this fact until I started to write syllabuses for the courses I would teach. As I outlined the course objectives, developed assignments and compiled reading lists, I realized that I wanted my students to learn.
At first blush, a teacher wanting students to learn sounds like the obvious goal. But that goal is not always obvious. During my previous 18 years of teaching, I automatically followed the syllabuses to the letter, tested students and handed out grades.
The truth is that I often reached my goals without bringing my students along.
Over the years, I have had professors and colleagues who did the same, who were great at delivering the material but who did not check to see if their students were learning. Brilliant lectures, pop quizzes and difficult final examinations do not always add up to a positive learning experience for students. I made an effort at Angelo State to help my students learn. In fact, I put their learning ahead of my rules and deadlines.
Here is how I discovered that I had changed: One afternoon, a young woman came to my office because she had made the grade of D on a personal response essay about Celie, the protagonist in the novel The Color Purple. I gave her a D because she had failed to understand that Mr. _____, Celie’s brutal husband, had become a sympathetic figure in the end.
As we talked, I realized that this student, white and 19, was totally unfamiliar with black culture _ even literature _ and had no background to understand the sentiment of forgiveness among blacks _ especially the forgiveness of a character who had been dehumanized.
Initially, the student’s ignorance exhausted me, and I was growing angry. I do not recall when it happened, but an enlightened voice told me that the young woman’s ignorance was a thing to be respected. It was not to be denigrated. As a professor, I was experiencing a teaching moment, a time when the teacher must apprehend and take advantage of the viability of ignorance, the blank slate, as it were.
As the student listened to my analysis, she gradually understood that Mr. _____ had become sympathetic. I came to understand that effective teaching and learning occur when professors approach their work as scientists approach their work: Scientists respect ignorance so much so that they do not go out to confirm what they already know. Instead, they go out to find out what they do not know.
Students, mostly teenagers, do not come to the academy to confirm what they know. They arrive to discover and to learn. An obvious truth? Perhaps. I spent my adult life learning it.
After that day with the student, teaching became a joy for me, not a chore. Each class session became a challenge to hone ignorance into moments of curiosity and opportunities to test and experiment with answers and solutions. I now understood that teaching and learning should not be mere exercises in reward and punishment. I found myself lecturing less and asking more questions that led students to their own questions, some of them profound.
I do not know if this is the best way to teach. But I learned that such a method, when used earnestly, liberates students by putting real learning at center stage, by removing blame and judgment from ignorance, which is nothing more than the simple lack of knowledge.