thoughtful words from an exceptional teacher

A friend of mine who works at Union College in Schenectady emailed me the following text of an award acceptance address given by English Professor Hugh Jenkins. It deserves wider distribution.
It’s hard for me to express how genuinely pleased and honored I am by this award. I can’t possibly acknowledge all who have contributed to my teaching, so I would like in a general fashion to thank those of you out there for helping me with what I do, and those of you back there for not hindering me in doing it.
I mean both sincerely, even-perhaps especially-the latter. We seem now to live in a country whose discourse is dominated by religious bigots, moral bullies, and intellectual terrorists-most self-appointed, but many elected, and some a strange combination of both. Such people have little use for what we do; they prefer metaphysics to science, prophesy to history, belief to reason, smug righteousness to rhetoric and uncertainty, the closed circle of ideology to intellectual debate, the free market and the profit motive to the free play of the mind. They have created a climate in which debate becomes dissent, dissent lack of patriotism, and lack of patriotism borderline criminality. I’ve heard in little in their public discourse over the last few years makes me believe these people would thrive at Union; I don’t think they would ever get past FYP. And, in an astonishing irony, they consider US-radical professors and ignorant students, or ignorant professors and radical students-the crazy ones in the current culture wars. As Bill Moyers has said, today the delusional is no longer marginal. In fact, it’s not even considered delusional anymore. Here’s a direct quotation from a current government official: ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” In my experience, two types of people (and I don’t mean to equate the two) try to create their own realities: doctrinaire Marxists and complete lunatics. I’ll let you decide which one you believe the speaker belongs to.
In such a climate it is a great blessing just to be left alone to do what we do. It’s worth remembering that the liberal arts mean the free arts, and a free society cannot survive without them. As my great hero John Milton, writing in the midst of a civil war and in a century of unprecedented religious conflict, wrote, ‘give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to my conscience, above all liberties.’ We have that here at Union. Our weakness makes us strong, saith the Apostle Paul, and I would argue that we are strong and necessary not despite our arguments, with ourselves and the world, and our craziness, for in a mad world only the mad are sane, but because of them. We represent something great at Union and something necessary, and something that is increasingly threatened. If you think I am exaggerating that threat, you haven’t been paying attention. Put down your New York Times and turn off your NPR and read and listen to what most Americans see and hear. At issue now is preserving the heritage of free inquiry and the ideals of a free society that have lived for more than two thousand years. The intellectual privileges we have here at Union and at similar institutions are vital in sustaining the basic rights of our society as a whole. This makes them privileges worth fighting for, and its enemies worth fighting. This is not a Red vs. Blue or left vs. right issue. We must all take up the fight if we truly believe in what we preach and try to practice here at Union.
Thank you.

In his statement of teaching philosophy, included below, he describes what should be the basis for all teaching and learning:

So I like to believe that my teaching has a deeply political mission, to create the skeptical, critical, and individualistic thinking real democracy demands.

Here’s his total statement of teaching:
I am greatly honored by being nominated for the Stillman Prize. While recognition from one’s peers elevates the pride (and vanity), recognition from one’s students touches the heart. I am moved and gratified that my students indeed find my classes full of “excitement, joy, and challenge.” I certainly do. I find those qualities in any kind of discovery, in any kind of exploration; to me they make up the great mystery and art of learning. I will gladly admit that my best classes are often complete surprises to me. They tend to occur when the carefully prepared outline, the daily quiz, the underlined points in the text, the memorized passages all dissolve before a completely unanticipated question or a previously unregarded thought. At such moments the boundaries between teaching and learning, student and professor dissolve, and the class becomes an aggregate of unanswered questions and developing thoughts: I learn from my students and they learn from me. I believe that is the best I can do in a class, and I think it is where the excitement and challenge develops.
I feel lucky to have learned to teach from real masters of this paradoxical art. I have had terrific mentors in grad school, at Union, and in some cases from birth (my father, a teacher himself, was my greatest inspiration). I have learned from them, and had that knowledge confirmed through experience, that one can only develop such surprising, unanticipated moments of genuine intellectual challenge and discovery in a class through carefully preparing the basics. I always reread the texts I teach, no matter how often I have taught them before, and I always find something new and exciting by doing so. (I will quit teaching when I lose the motivation to do so.) I insist that the students read them carefully as well, something I monitor through daily quizzes and, when possible, weekly essays. But what I call the basics are really matters of caring about what you do-that for me is the real basis from which all good classes and all real learning starts. I feel that if I can demonstrate how much I care about learning, how much I try to learn from each class, I can help instill a similar care and excitement in my students. Only when a student or teacher truly cares can moments of intense personal revelation and realization occur, and only when that student truly cares can he or she communicate those revelations in a meaningful way.
That is why, after establishing the basics, I at least try to give over the primary responsibilities in and out of the classroom to my students. I like to promote an open, student-centered and driven classroom. Daily quizzes are daily talking points: in fact, I will allow students ten to fifteen minutes before a quiz to ask questions about the readings. If they ask the questions that appear on the quiz, it becomes a formality. If they ask really interesting questions-ones that often don’t appear on the quizzes-the quiz becomes irrelevant. I often have students present important contextual materials-social or political history, lesser-known authors or texts, critical responses to the texts-to encourage students to read beyond the syllabus. I have found that students tend to present such materials in exciting and creative ways. An example of this would be in my current Restoration Drama class, where students are illustrating the social history of the period’s aristocracy by not only dressing as aristocrats did, but also by trying to recreate the cosmetics, the wigs, and various prosthetics they wore. All of this comes as part of a “Restoration Evening,” featuring a full seventeenth-century dinner eaten according to proper seventeenth-century manners. Such projects, I hope, convert learning from a passive to an active experience: the texts come alive for the students, and they come alive in the class.
So what I essentially care about is not so much what students think but rather how they think and why. The complex dialectic of text and context, of writer and audience, of student and teacher creates both meaning and meaningfulness, excitement and challenge. The test of such a dialectic remains the student essay, and making that a forum of “excitement and joy” is the ultimate challenge and ultimate mystery of teaching English. I believe, following George Orwell (and Samuel Johnson, and Cicero, and Aristotle), that good writing is good, clear thinking, and good, clear thinking is the first step toward social engagement and, ultimately, political regeneration. If students are to be responsible for interpreting and creating their own texts, their own ideals and values, they must care enough to make them challenging and exciting to their readers. The dialectic of text and reader, writer and audience, is then fundamentally a democratic one: Rhetoric, as the ancients believed, is the basis of responsible, mature citizenship. Like most ideals, though, rhetoric has its roots in the mundane. Thus I insist that essay follow the essential rules of grammar and logic-hence the “grammar tax” I collect on each essay. Students must know and follow these rules or, if they choose to break them, they must explain why they do so. I demand intellectual rigor in essays: I believe that one can’t discuss an idea without first defining it, nor can one develop that idea without a logical and specific argument. That applies in a student essay, but it applies most tellingly in the essays of real life.
Yet high-flown ideals are only the goals and grammatical precision and logical persuasion only the components of rhetoric; good writing, as its teachers from Aristotle and Horace to Strunk and White have shown, must delight its audience as it instructs them. I try to teach students to care about their sentences, to construct them so artfully that the art disguises itself. To encourage such care, particularly in Preceptorial, I like to give “sentence of the week” (or “essay of the week”) prizes. (In the Restoration class, this has evolved into a “wit of the week” competition, the winner of which I excuse from the next weekly essay.) And, in a way, I try to make my own comments on a paper a miniature essay, constructing them as carefully (and I hope persuasively) as I can, tailoring each to the needs of the individual student. Writing twenty-five to thirty miniature essays a week challenges me as well as them, but I hope the comments provide a model of critical reading and writing. What I care about is making students highly critical readers of their own writing as well as that of others. Only then can one begin to develop a reasonable, educated, yet also personable voice, and make that voice responsive to the shifting desires and perceptions of its audience. Helping that voice develop remains the greatest challenge and the greatest reward of what I teach.
Challenge and reward: in the space between them, for me and, I hope, my students, lies the excitement and joy of teaching and learning. I like to think my teaching is both highly idealistic and deeply skeptical, democratic yet rigorous, demanding yet playful. And as I reread this, I realize that I have largely overlooked the last quality, which might in fact be the most important one. Socrates believed that real education is a form of play. Play is fun. I think my best classes are fun and funny classes, where all that is accepted and formal and known and conventional is questioned by laughter. I think real learning is at least in part subversive, or has to start with a subversive impulse. Laughter can provoke questioning and doubt, and one challenge of teaching is turning such skepticism to constructive ends. So I like to believe that my teaching has a deeply political mission, to create the skeptical, critical, and individualistic thinking real democracy demands. It acknowledges this mission as a challenge and embraces it as excitement-as fun. I like to think I can teach my students to care about basic values and their expression and enjoy doing so. That is what the authors I teach and love have done, that is what my mentors have done, and when I can do so, for a moment the mysteries of the classroom give way to those of life.
I salute my mentors and again thank my students, past and present, for this honor.

2 thoughts on “thoughtful words from an exceptional teacher

  1. OH, how I LOVED reading this! Thank you for sharing, Elaine! I was fortunate to have several English professors like Mr. Jenkins thoughout my education. There is nothing like spending three times the energy on a class like this that one would normally spend on a typical class, and spend it willingly, arriving early, staying late, throwing your whole self into the teacher’s world because they create such a nurturing environment. They do make learning fun! And it’s supposed to be like that!
    I loved that part about how he is willing to recognize a higher elevation reached by his students and so will suspend the day planner to incorporate the energy reached instead.
    What an extraordinary teacher. Too bad, that his level of teaching is recognized as “extraordinary” … but his opening statement alludes to why that is these days.

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