Where Do English Teachers Come From?

He's the one in the middle

When you look at your college English teacher, you may just see a teacher, and you assume they always were one. But many of them had a previous life. Each discipline seems to attract certain types of people; for example, coaches end up teaching high school math. When you were in high school, you never saw the coach teaching English, did you?

up in the ivory tower

One thing that particularly strikes me are the people who are drawn to academic life after time with the sacred. At the University of Texas at Austin there are two ex-priests, and a jolly ex-nun, perhaps relieved to be back in the world again. She's interested in the secret society that Shakespeare allegedly belonged to. Priests and nuns? If you think about it, it makes sense. The life of a college professor can be pretty quiet and contemplative if you want it to be.

A graduate student who was hoping for a professor's life, was in the army previously, and he is the person who wrote the jingle "Be all that you can be, join the army." Which the army still uses to this day. (He was not given royalties, only a paycheck.) He was using those same skills now, to write his dissertation on Chaucer.

'Tugboat New Orleans'
Marsha Baldwin

The English Department once boasted of a professor who was a founding member of the Velvet Underground, Sterling Morrison- and he'd even been a tugboat captain. His specialty was Medieval Studies. He left UT after a few years to return to music, but has since passed away.

My own background is not so exciting, I've worked in my share of restaurants and bookstores and was even a bicycle messenger for one day; but my main jobs have always been attached to a college, be it in the office, the library or the classroom- pretty much what you'd expect from an English teacher, I'm afraid.


Mmm Delicious

(Honoré Daumier)
Frequently  a teacher gets a lesson when she is supposed to be giving the lesson. This happened once while my class was examining the "White Lie."

A class I taught at the nontraditional college was Interpersonal Communications, which takes things everyone knows intuitively about how people communicate, and makes it objective and scientific.

So, there were charts like Message triangles and Feedback loops. A simple conversation was broken down into components of Context, Interference, Utility . . . etc. The students were learning to objectively analyze communication in their daily lives.

The result was supposed to be greater self-awareness and personal improvement. We had many class discussions where we took a concept from the textbook and discussed actual situations they could remember or imagine.

So we were discussing the White Lie, when is it appropriate or not, according to Situation, Context, Relationship, etc. and especially what the Stakes were- a calculation of what would be gained or lost.

Interpersonal Communications
made simple
Someone came up with the example of what to do when you don't like someone's cooking. Everyone agreed that if the person was close enough to you, it would be to everyone's advantage to tell the truth.

A hand rose up in the back. It was Manuel from Mexico. "I don't," he said.
"What don't you do?" I asked.
"When  my wife cooks," said Manuel, "I always say "Mmm delicious, honey."
The class giggled.
"Even if you don't like it?"
"Of course," he said as if it was obvious.
"What if it's too salty?"
"I eat it."
"But what if she thinks you like it, so she cooks it again?
"I say Mmm delicious, honey."
"Manuel, how long have you been married?"
"Ten years."
I turn to the class. "A lesson for a successful marriage," I say.
A lesson quite over and beyond the one I had in mind.


An Apple for the Teacher

falling apples, link

We're all familiar with the apple for the teacher, waiting for her on the desk all polished and shiny. Someone was trying to get into her good graces, perhaps Tom Sawyer, hoping his attention would reflect on his treatment, on his grade. It's an old-fashioned image, but the problem remains with us: is it ok to give it to her?



Girl at Gate

State Library & Archive of Florida

While I was teaching Composition at the four-year non-traditional college, one particular woman was having an unusual difficulty. She never spoke in class. I had only assigned light papers with quick topics, and her writing was confused and confusing. I began to wonder if she was stupid.

Then came the first major paper. She asked to speak to me alone. She tried to describe to me what her paper was going to be about, but she was almost incoherent. She spoke in phrases that did not connect to each other but piled up.



I taught at a non-traditional four-year college where most students were black. I taught a course in Logic and Argumentation that had for its textbook a rigorous approach to logic, heavily weighted towards the courtroom.

By lucky coincidence, the course coincided with a huge court case in the media. It was every teacher's dream. It was like teaching a class with a Lab component. We could watch the arguments unfold as we study proper argumentation and logic. And the court case was-- OJ Simpson.


The 'One Girl' Effect

schoolboys 1945
Note the girls are separate 
around the corner

I once taught English classes in a place where the student body would have been almost all-male, had they not offered a "secretarial science" program for the purpose of women attending. Still, I often had classes with no women in them at all, or only one or two. It was a two-year "technical college," the type offering certificates in technical skills such as electronics and repair.

The boys tended to be in their late teens and early twenties, often fresh from high school. Very few did well in English; nor did they work very hard at it. They were there because it was a requirement. There was something particularly boyish about them, and I suspect it was quite a bit like teaching high school.


Just Tell Me the Answer!: the Socratic Method

Socrates condemned to drink hemlock:
Is this where the Socratic Method leads?

The Death of Socrates
1787 Jacques Louis David: World History Archive/Alamy 

Teaching and tutoring are not supposed to be lecturing. Students have to speak up in discussion. Supposedly a good teacher/tutor uses the Socratic Method of questioning, in which the tutor asks a series of questions, nudging the student in a certain direction until the student figures out the answer herself.

But in this method, the more the student talks, the more she feels like she is dominating the discussion. Once a student of mine became very upset because she said she didn't come to a tutor to have to do the work by herself. Basically she was thinking "Why are we paying so much money if I'm doing all the talking. We should be paying the teacher to teach me."


String of Pearls

I worked in the tutoring center at Cooper Union, a world-renowned scholarship school with only three majors: Art, Architecture and Engineering. Thus our students fell into three highly distinct types.

The Engineers tended to be foreign and had trouble with saying what they meant, grammar and sentence structure. The Architecture students never came- in all my years there, I saw only one. His mind was a blend of art and science and he had very little trouble with writing.

Then there were the Art students. They presented a very odd style.

The Art student writing style, reflecting the Art student mind and logic, was so creative that I never wanted to change it. Really I hated the thought of taming a creative, associative mind to be like everybody else.


In the Garage (Grad School)

Writing on the rain
For my Master's Degree thesis I evaluated the academic writing of a student at the University of Texas at Austin. He was someone I used to chat with when I worked in the library, and he'd told me that he taught himself to write. I thought that might make an interesting thesis topic and asked to see some of his college papers. They were highly unusual and I saw immediately he was not the typical student.

I had no idea what to make of such strange writing. It was not academic yet it was highly insightful. And it was fun to read! It was a whole different way of relating to the world and a different way of understanding information. It was like he was speaking a different language entirely from what students are taught to use to succeed in college. If he was unwilling or unable to use the standard academic way, should he be penalized?


Turning Point (Grading Papers)

grade book
For the first few years that I was a teacher and tutor, I gave every student the benefit of a doubt. I accepted their weak work and their excuses, feeling that nothing could be done about it, that I didn't have the right to complain, and most of all, I was afraid to be mean because I wanted my students to like me.