September 28, 2006

Teaching: cheaper than therapy

Most of the linguists I know have day jobs as teachers at universities and colleges to support their habits of  research and writing. I spent a little over forty years in the classroom, first as a junior high English teacher, then six years teaching linguistics to undergrads, and the rest of the years struggling to help grad students become linguists. Shifting briefly into the Rumsfeldian mode, was it satisfying? Certainly. Was I successful? Hardly. Do I feel good now that it's over? You bet, although it's never really "over." Teaching  goes on and on, as illustrated by a recent article in the New York Times (see here).

This article tells us about a CCNY political scientist, Stanley Feingold, now 80 and long since retired, who keeps on keeping on. He doesn't teach in the classroom anymore but his former students still seek his counsel. Well, five times a year anyway at their luncheons in New York, when they get him to fly from his home in Seattle to hold still more seminars with their honored professor. Really neat, huh?

Looking back now, I find that I absorbed most of my own learning from professors in whose classrooms I never had the opportunity to sit. Their books and articles, papers given at conferences, correspondence, and informal discussions did the job for me. Often it wasn't the linguistic content that mattered most. It was their attitude, their excitement, their advice, and their ways of expressing ideas. I've never met Professor Feingold but I'll bet that he must have been one of those who could communicate these qualities exceptionally well.

In today's world we honor publication and research (as we should, of course) but we don't usually  think about the other kind of teaching we got, which is often the major cause of how we got where we are. Information sources are now abounding but attitude, advice, and encouragement comes from good teachers, giving hope for the importance of teaching and the continuing future of the classroom setting. I can list my own examples  of linguistics teachers who made right-angle turns in my life. Most of us can, if we take the time to think about it.

I disagree, however, with Professor Feingold's regrets about choosing teaching as his career. He says that his decision to be a teacher was a mistake because, in his words, "I know of no other profession where your on-the-job performance counts so little." Maybe that's because we do an inadequate job of measuring on-the-job performance in our universities. It does count, but it's not always recognizable in the standard course evaluation forms collected at the end of a term.

On-the-job performance might be better measured by the way students' lives are changed. And as for what the teacher gets out of it, as  Professor Feingold puts it, "teaching is cheaper than therapy."

Posted by Roger Shuy at September 28, 2006 01:53 PM