Teaching is a Confluence of Opposites

“More than any other profession…teaching is a confluence of opposites. Teaching draws on instinct, and it draws on acquired skills. Teaching involves routine, and it involves improvisation. Teaching is prose surprised by moments of poetry. Teaching is applied pedagogy, tested by trial and error. There is no better way to learn something than to teach it, and teaching itself is a continual learning process — a methodology that changes every time new students walk in the door and sit down at their desks.” — Tim Lemire, I’m an English Major — Now What?

This semester, my “Introduction to Literary Studies” course read Lemire’s book as a way for students to start thinking realistically about their future careers. There was a great interest in teaching as a potential profession, which is common among English majors. In fact, it’s sort of a “default” for many of them. Even if they don’t know what they’re getting into, it is still our job to provide them with models they might draw on in the future, when they scramble to understand what it really means to be responsible to both the field and their students’ future.

I do always try to model good teaching practice, even when I’m only playing the goofball in the front of the room. But now that the term is almost over, I’m wondering: do I employ my own teaching in a way that not only models what it is that teachers actually do in a classroom, but also how they navigate this “confluence of opposites” that Lemire describes? Do they learn to intellectually and performatively cope with and manage the oppositions? Do they know how to synthesize the oppositions or how to separate them when required? Are they learning instincts as much as acquired skills. Improv as well routine? Poetry as much prose? Application and experiment? Flexibility to learn continually?

This quote above really spoke to me as a poetic truism about the impulses of the profession — which often moves in opposite directions simultaneously. Even here in this blog, the two primary categories — theory and praxis — are at once separate in their purpose and yet brought together in any act of writing. But is such a “bringing together” going on in my classroom when I host a discussion or mark up a paper? How ‘dialectical’ is my teaching, really? I’ll keep musing over it, but for now, I just liked that quotation so much that I wanted to share it… and encourage other English professionals to consider using Lemire’s book in their classroom or in their advising. It is quite a practical and thoughtful guide to the various options our major affords.

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Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

One thought on “Teaching is a Confluence of Opposites”

  1. Thanks, Michael, for the quote by Lemire. I hadn’t read it before. I’d suggest another set of questions to English majors considering teaching: What do you know about the science of what people do to learn? How do you see yourself using that science to teach? Does this set of Qs make sense in your world?

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