Learning from your students.

4 05 2011

Way back when I was a teaching assistant, I was running a review session for a class with 120 people in it. The class was America 1877-1914, but the instructor had included the Schlieffen Plan as one of the terms. Why? I still don’t know.

Sheltered Americanist that I was (and still am to a much lesser degree), when I got asked about the Schlieffen Plan during the review session, I got the answer completely wrong. Immediately after that, an undergraduate who had obviously had European history than I had described it in far greater detail than the professor ever did. My exact reply to her was as follows:

“I guess my credibility is shot to Hell. Next question please.”

I tell that story with no embarrassment because I’ve come to enjoy learning from my students. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. This is an excellent article filled with all the kind of outraged professor things that I usually blog about in this space, but I still like this quote most of all:

“Profess” can be used in different ways—to make a disingenuous statement (“He professed to like his boss”) or to announce religious commitments (“She professed her faith in God”). But I use it in the sense of making a public claim to knowledge, with an openness to respond to critiques of that claim. When it really works, students not only listen to professors but learn to profess themselves. When it works, I’m just an older—and, one hopes, at least slightly wiser—version of my students.

To me, there is no greater joy than when I get to shut up during a class discussion because two or more students have started talking (or better yet, arguing) with each other. This is particularly true with my labor history class, where even though I may know more about strikes than they do, they know a lot more about how the labor movements arguments and tactics play in Peoria.

Now if only I could only learn how to spell “Schlieffen” without Googling it first.


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