Pedagogical Portraits

David Solway

It seems to me there are basically five types—whether arche- or stereo- is another matter—of teachers who remain in the yeoman or domestic category of the profession, that is, who rely more on standardized idiosyncrasy than on the numen of “personality” as a means of ensuring recollection among their students. These five divisions are to some extent “ideal” or theoretical, and the actual teachers we remember or still resent may well be hybrids of two or more of these constituent portraits. But as we so often meet the specimen in all its concrete and undeniable purity, it seems a fair assumption that we are dealing with essentially human and not exclusively academic types. The teaching profession is made for them.

There are, of course, teachers who will slip through my taxonomic net, whose portraits will not be found hanging in the pedagogical gallery. My contention is that the absent are not really teachers at all, but find themselves in the classroom by accident or pressure of circumstance and not from some compulsion or innate sense of destiny or vocational fit. The petite, diffident young lady always on the verge of collapse. The nervous chemistry teacher who curries favor by pretending not to see the crumpled balls of foolscap passing from hand to hand during the test. The dreary, note-reading martyr for whom teaching is a Pavlovian response to the lecture bell. These are not types, properly speaking, but misfits, the debris of some private catastrophe, casualties of a poor decision. They proliferate but they don’t count. The exception is the so-called “born teacher,” the initiatory preceptor who provides an example to students through sheer force of character and disciplined sympathy—who, to quote Coleridge, “shall mould/Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.” But there are so few of these messianic anomalies, these numinous personalities, that they cannot be considered as forming a category unless there is such a thing as a category of one.

The Mother

Nearly everyone has had such a teacher at least once, a kindly ample woman who may have children of her own, though this is not a necessary condition. Her distinguishing feature is the mammalian gift of putting her students at their ease by appearing not to be teaching a class but nurturing a brood, caring for the unsheltered, raising a family. She rarely stands behind her desk and approaches the blackboard only with reluctance. Instead she perambulates among the desks, dispensing smiles of encouragement with the indiscriminateness of a pigeon-feeder in the park scattering breadcrumbs. The class bully and the class dunce are treated as embryonic prodigies who need only a little loving attention to realize their true, slumbering natures. Everyone is brought along at the same pace, or if there is some inequality in the distribution of attention, it is usually the poor student who benefits at the expense of his more deserving counterpart. Love is the great leveler.

It is when the Mother finds herself teaching at the college- or university-level that the trouble really starts. In elementary or even high school, her students, though they may take ruthless advantage of her charity, may still feel sufficient guilt to remain reasonably tractable. At the higher echelons things tend to change. There is a whiff of revolt in the air, carried over from being too long in the home, mixed with a dim, unexpressed sense of condescension. The student’s liking of the Mother is accompanied by pity and disrespect, and the new emotional alloy makes for an underlying tension of which everyone except the Mother is aware. The amount of learning that gets done in such circumstances is minimal. Sometimes the class feels like a group therapy session, sometimes like an extended detention period. On good days everyone seems to get along, but afterwards no one remembers a thing.

Meanwhile, the bright students, critical and eager, find their intellectual edge growing blunt and rusty and become the new delinquents. The Mother is unable to understand, summons the offenders (the great offense is absence) to her office, and takes them under her downy, capacious wing. In this way the truants, unless they drop out altogether, are forced to return, bludgeoned by an amorphous excess of wholesale concern, embarrassed into submission.

Ultimately, very few profit from the Mother’s loving ministrations. The good student is held back. The bad student is reinforced in his or her agreeable vices. And the vast middle reaches of the indifferent and mediocre remain precisely where they always were, in the infinity of their numbers and the eternity of their ways.

The Martinet

When a woman, almost invariably the spinster. Her type is so well-documented and so familiar that she has attained the status of a cultural myth about which there is little to be said and even less to be done. As long as sexual failure and repression continue to exist, students will tremble before these grey Furies and pay with regurgitated facts for the pain of hoarded illusions.

The male exemplar is a more complex and interesting case. Sometimes he is someone displaced from the business community who intends to shore up the flimsy bulwarks of that professional fantasy called Education. He is a strict accountant obsessed with rote exercises and the calculation of grades. In evaluating his students he has been known to rely on that most ethereal of differentials, the quarter-point. He is also a past-master at indexing grades to keep up with academic inflation or, in a sudden, devastating stroke, devaluing the numerical currency for the sake of pedagogical retrenchment.

More often he is someone with a background in logic, mathematics, or economics, or at least someone with a predisposition towards the kind of costive thinking these subjects often require. You notice him immediately in the hall or common room: invariably beardless, stiff in demeanor so that sitting down he appears to be standing up, given in speech to the axiomatic, chronically unable to distinguish between humor and wit—and, for all that, at inadvertent moments charming in a boyish, almost vulnerable way. But what he cannot forgive is the sloppiness of being human. Feeling is for him a form of incompetence, a confession of inadequacy, the unfactorable sin. And as for imagination, this is equivalent to the noble title purchased by the vulgar parvenu who is not born to the proud aristocracy of the intelligent. Hence he harbors an inalienable suspicion of the poet, the existentialist and the seducer, yet is secretly attracted by these disreputables. In later years he may fall for Marlene Dietrich.

His classes are singularly boring. He assumes, as a pedagogical gimmick, that his students are capable of rational thought and have a disinterested conviction in the importance of learning. This allows him to be disappointed, so that when his expectations are predictably deflated, he can spend the rest of the semester obliterating his classes with a dry, cutting, unrelenting contempt whose only effect is to dismay and paralyze the one or two excellent students with which even the dullest class is wonderfully provided. His dubious effectiveness is limited to his younger simulacrum who will proceed to adopt him as a suffering and misunderstood educator. For the martinet, teaching is a perpetual crucifixion, the dais his personal Golgotha, and redemption, assuming it is possible, an inexorable function of damnation.

The Peer

Usually a man, most likely because this type prolongs or reestablishes the affectation of clubby familiarity so dear to masculine societies from the playing field to the masonic lodge to the patrician cenacles of the leisurely and favored. In some ways he resembles the Mother: he has his students arrange their desks in a circle to break the tyrannical framework of the orthodox classroom and is always to be found comfortably ensconced in their midst, distinguished by his grizzled inappropriateness. In his efforts to be like his students, he is invariably the worst-dressed person in the group, or anyway the most quaintly garbed, remaining an unbridgeable five years behind the latest revolution in fashion. His hair is long when everyone else’s is cropped. The denims that have replaced his corduroys are preposterously bell-bottomed when all the legs cozily crossed around him are stovepiped. He is a great stickler for informality. His primal act is to memorize everyone’s first name and he insists on being tu-toyered himself. The decibel level in his classes is always high, compounded of chair-scraping, paper-rustling, audience rhubarb and gouts of rich, companionable laughter. On occasion he even brings a whistle strung on a lanyard around his neck. Teaching, after all, is coaching.

There are other ways of recognizing the Peer even in his disengaged condition. He is the one who invariably rides a bicycle to campus or carries a rucksack on his back. He is the senior member of the student cafeteria. He will volunteer his time to supervise the rugby practice or accompany the student avant garde to Kathmandu or sit on Academic Council as their elder representative. From time to time his letters appear on the editorial page of the undergraduate newspaper defending student interests or commenting adversely on current grading procedures. He is always the picture of bustling, roseate contentment.

In class he is the great partisan of self-evaluation. The students sit in their charmed Arthurian circle and discuss performance, intention, and contribution, suggesting the mark they think they deserve and consulting their fellows, whose self-recommended grades they will be inclined to endorse if their own proposals are equally approved. So as not to appear unduly extortionate, they can be counted on to reduce their exaggerations by an honorable percentage, under the benevolent gaze of the primus inter pares, and still pass with a tidy profit.

No one learns much here, but a good time is had by all.

The Maverick

In his speech and behavior, he is eccentric, flamboyant, a paragon of theatrical virtuosity. He will wait patiently until all his students have settled down and then proceed to stare at them for several minutes without uttering a word. When the atmosphere in the room is sufficiently charged, sparking with tension and embarrassment, the Maverick will suddenly ask an unanswerable question, something quite unexpected like, “Why are you here?” Which is, of course, intended to shake up the inherited complacency of generations. After another minute of intolerable silence, he consents to respond to his own query by mounting a passionate inquisition that moves between the extremes of lacerating irony and rhetorical inflation. If there is any time left, he may even consult the assigned text, though more as a tactical maneuver to keep his students off balance than to teach them anything. He may also spend an hour reading from the Book of Ezekiel.

There is always among his students a dedicated minority who see him as the object of departmental calumny or the victim of political correctness and who will rally around his beleaguered and emblematic figure whenever he gets into trouble, which is on average about twice a semester. Since he is not so much a teacher as a perpetual cause, it can be a tonic and revitalizing experience to sit at his roweled feet, at any rate for those who are part of the revolutionary vanguard. They will defend him to the approximate death before delegations of worried parents. They will run around the halls wearing T-shirts with his face stenciled on the front. They will picket Academic Council, where his dismissal is being debated. And he almost always retains his position because “terminating” him would be more disruptive than putting up with his fiery presence—apart from the fact that nobody likes to be labeled reactionary. And so he survives quite nicely, thank you, preserving his incendiary status as a continuing issue.

Nevertheless, some kind of tangential learning does tend to happen. Students are informed that Francis Bacon did indeed write Shakespeare’s plays, as Costard’s “honorificabilitudinitatibus” (which anagrams out as hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi) from Love’s Labour’s Lost makes abundantly clear; that William Wordsworth did in fact consummate an incestuous passion with his sister Dorothy, which explains the impending orgy of ecclesiastical sonnets; that Joseph Conrad was a Polish secret agent working against British imperial interests; that profanity in literature must be understood as subversive and enlightening; and that Carlos Castaneda and William Burroughs are the exploratory titans of the modern sensibility. This is no doubt preferable to handing in a book report on A Tale of Two Cities or a statistical analysis on the frequency of the indefinite article in The Waste Land.

The Authority

Usually male. (The female variety tends to adopt male characteristics, especially with advancing age, becoming progressively less “feminine” and more headmistressy, a reified cliché.) He is the repository of “the tradition,” the cultural encyclopedia, the self-elected peritus, as voluminous in his knowledge as he is often in his person. His secret name is Erythynus and he may be found in a state of arrogant repose as the thirty-third symbol of the Protreptics of Iamblichus. He has read everything twice, though he is very fond of the technique of self-deprecation, claiming to have mastered only 80 percent of the “secondary material.”

The “primary material” has become so deeply assimilated it is now part of his neurological structure. He terrifies his students both by the sheer bulk of his erudition and the massive and unflinching expectations he maintains with respect to levels of performance. He is inordinately proud of the high failure rate in his classes, which he takes as an infallible sign of his praetorian allegiance to the cause of education. And as he is ineluctably conservative on whatever plane he chooses to exercise his didactic and well-researched judgment, he is the Maverick’s perfect antithesis and counterweight. Any department that has one needs the other for the sake of equilibrium.

He is also the opposite of the Mother in that he invites the advanced students to scale transcendence while the challenged and the lazy rush to the course-change booths. For all his mannerisms and egocentricity, he can be an exceptional teacher and can always be counted on to stimulate the small fraternity of the elite who consider themselves fortunate to bask in his deflected radiance. But it must be understood that the underprivileged are regarded as expendable by this ponderous cognitionist and that almost no one does well. A passing grade in his classes is equivalent to a superlative achievement in any other course. This is called “upholding standards.”

He is never caught out, never at a loss. He possesses a memory coated with stickum so that he never drops a fact or bobbles a date. Students are permitted to disagree pro forma, which enables him afterward to crush the dissenter with an avalanche of archival omniscience. He will base his conclusions on two thousand years of historical continuity, the insights of oriental mythology, and the history of science from Atlantis to Silicon Valley. He quickly achieves legendary standing among his students and colleagues and need only appear to disarm criticism or promote conviction.

Perhaps his chief defect is his basically sentimental predilection for edifying resistant majorities. No controversy is allowed to slip by without drawing a treatise or position paper from his well-oiled Olivetti (he shuns the laptop). The prose is always turgid and pontifical, the content profoundly unoriginal and derivative, and the appeal is to the tribunal of constituted authority or the consensus of reasonable men. He is the great, primordial beaver, the builder of cerebral dams to stanch the flood of chaos and construct a secure habitat for scholarly rodents. For this is the abiding contradiction of the Authority: a phenomenon of learning, a memorable pedagogue, a beacon of cultivation, he is at the same time a brake on the creative or pioneering spirit, a drag-chute released at take-off. But he is not a pedant or a hypocrite. He knows too much to be a Holofernes and is far too principled to be a Don Armado. Pressing the Shakespearian analogy, he has more in common with Falstaff, if one substitutes the inkhorn for the stirrup-cup. And the brilliant student who profits from his mentorship must eventually play the ingrate Henry, abandoning his tutor to his congenial immensities.

* * *

These are the immortals of the profession. As the living teacher gets frayed away, the phyla remain, pristine, inevitable. The wonder is that anything resembling education occurs at all—the teachers victims of their obsessions, the students victims of their teachers, their parents, and themselves. Yet it happens, but only for the sacred remnant who, mothered, befriended, constricted, shocked and brow-beaten, somehow manage to come through, testifying not to the efficiency of the system but to the astonishing resilience of the human mind, and to the cruel biblical paradox that only to those who have shall it be given.

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