Of Academic Idealism

Of Academic Idealism

I want my students to be brilliant.

I want them to make observations I haven’t thought of, and write sentences that make me smile just because they are so articulate, and draw connections that illuminate literary history.

And in between those flashes of brilliance, I want them to be competent.

And in the lulls between competence, I want them to be hard-working and recognize that there is always room for improvement.

And when they are too busy to be hard-working in my class, I want them to be making conscious choices to prioritize whatever is most important.

Because I am not fool enough to think that my students are all able to be (or interested in being) deeply invested in work for my classes every minute of the day, but I am idealist enough to wish they all–yes, every single one–will be deliberate participants in their own educations.

I think we can all agree that no one gets much out of a class in which the professor is just going through the motions of teaching, without any passion, any enthusiasm, any effort at creative exploration of ideas, any goal of motivating students. By the same token, a class with more than one or two students who are apathetic, under-prepared, over-extended, or otherwise unable to participate in the learning process begins to lag.

Though we tend not to talk about this, the simple truth is that brilliance in a classroom is a product not just of the quality of minds gathered in the room but also of the quality of effort everyone brings to the table. Without thorough preparation and genuine energy from the person leading the class, the class goes nowhere…but even the most thoughtfully creative work of a teacher merely sets the stage for student brilliance. Students also have to rise to the challenge, have to bring their own minds to bear in creating those flashes of light.

It is the hardest thing to do as a teacher: to inspire. There are weeks when I feel that no matter what I do, I have not reached that goal. Other moments, the room lights up with electricity, and everyone has something to say at once, and knowledge is not just rehashed but is produced. There are days when I agonize over the fact that no matter what I do, I cannot seem to get a particular class to reach that dynamic. And there are moments when I remind myself that I cannot do it alone, without their help.

I want my students to be brilliant.

Sometimes, they are too tired, distracted, over-whelmed, over-worked to strive for brilliance.

But I hope that, deep down, they all believe that if they put their minds to it, they can reach it. And I want them to try.

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