Essay

Confidence Game

By October 24, 2015 2 Comments
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by James Bratt

Two weeks ago, in his post “Ordinary Dust,” Jason Lief memorably described one of those bad teaching days that every college professor—maybe any teacher at any level—will quickly recognize. The students are unresponsive to all of our tricks. The salience of the topic of the day eludes them. (Jason’s was the social conditions that make atheism plausible. Oh, only that.) The passion we bring to the issue matters not. It, they, and we alike lie there flat, and the only thing to do to redeem the hour is continue to pour out that passion and treat the subject seriously, as if it all matters. Then, call it a day and try again next time. Meanwhile, ponder whether the problem—their problem, surely not ours—is apathy or ignorance. Being a professional, it occurred to me one most unpropitious day way in early career, means showing up and giving it full value even when you don’t feel like it. Granted, that’s not all there is to it, but it’s a sine qua non.

Jason was responding to Jennifer Holberg’s earlier post, “Barefoot Teaching,” which compared entering the classroom to Moses’s approach to the burning bush. The encounter of student, subject, and teacher makes this holy ground. And there are days like that too—maybe not as many as in category 1, but enough to keep us going. So, is there a way to bring these two models together? Strike a balance? Explain the disparity? Probably don’t want to force a synthesis. Unless that’s what a career retrospective amounts to.

The single best gift I received upon retiring was a collection of dozens of reflections that one of my stellar recent students solicited from the complete roster of people who had ever taken a class with me. (We won’t ask how she accessed that data; she’s a seminarian right now and doesn’t need to be all Hillary’d about Benghazi come ordination time.) Long story short, the gist of these memoirs is amazing. Humbling. Gratifying. It makes all of those “Ordinary Dust” days worth it. Turns out that the high calling of “Barefoot Teaching” is fulfilled—and, it’s clear in my case, fulfilled along those long paths of ordinary dust. Along the way I had heard parents and college trustees and administrators and guest speakers say scores of times that we as teachers have no idea what great impact, what formative shaping, we exert upon our students. I tended to slough this off as so much ignorance on the part of people who have no idea about the long slog of the dusty pilgrimage. But when your own past students say the same thing, it’s time to pay attention. And to say thank you. And to sing “Amazing Grace,” because some of these testimonies came from, umm, not such likely prospects. From the type of student that you wouldn’t have suspected of even paying attention, much less of having their world changed. But they’ve come out and said it, and nobody was putting a gun to their head to make them.

There are several common themes that run through these reflections. One shows the importance of being a pro, as stipulated above. Sure, some students take multiple courses with you and get the message via slow drip over repeated exposures. But a number of the people who spoke up had me only once, and at that in the three-week January term that can easily be treated like a blow-off. I tended to teach film courses in that format, and one student testifies that she has (literally) not been able to see the world the same ever since those three weeks. So, show up and try to give full value every day, because you have no idea what shape of readiness your students might be bringing to class, hide it though they might.

But the single theme that stands out most in this collection is the importance of treating students with respect. Of taking them and the subject seriously, even—maybe especially—when it takes a lot of pretending. Again and again, these graduates testify to having been scared as students, to have lacked confidence, to have not known their abilities and possibilities. And somehow the professor who was muttering about their dark forces of ignorance and apathy had managed to convey and build confidence in their ability to master the material and—even more—to learn how to reflect intelligently on its implications for life today and in the future. These typically were students who looked calm and composed and ready to do well in the world. In fact, they needed help and somehow I managed not to screw up and gave them that. Just as they were amazed not to have screwed up and actually gotten it. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good description of grace.

My only regret is that it took to the end of my teaching career to hear these testimonials forthrightly. Students at my institution are pretty reticent about expressing thanks and praise to faculty mid-course. And (one likely cause of the syndrome) vice-versa. I’m not one to use Scripture quotations for booster pills, but more than once I mentally recited Ecclesiastes’ injunction about casting our bread upon the waters with the assurance that someday it will return to us. The Preacher talking to teachers. My ship did come in. It was coming in all along. Many happy returns.

Jim is traveling in China currently, where The Twelve is, surprisingly (proudly?) enough of a threat to be blocked the authorities–an apology and explanation for the lateness of today’s post.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

2 Comments

  • Thanks for the encouragement in the middle of lots of “Ordinary Dust” days.

  • Duane VanderBrug says:

    Before you ever taught in a college classroom when you were on the Lawndale summer staff in the ’60s, it was obvious that your maturing gifts would mostly fall on good soil. . . which in time would produce delightful fruit! But even late in life, it is quite something to realized you are loved!

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