Making a difference or “The beautiful changes”: Reflections on a pedagogical theme

Making a difference or “The beautiful changes”: Reflections on a pedagogical theme

Brent MacLaine
1002 3M Teaching Fellow

n the first and obvious instance, “to make a difference” educationally means to facilitate change-a change of behaviour, attitude, or intellectual orientation. As educators, we initiate change in an attempt to improve the lives of our students and, if not to speed up their maturation, at least to ensure it. As professors, we want to be involved in this process. We are meddlers in other people’s growth.

That this intervention in students’ lives has affinities with parenting will be no surprise to the most committed classroom teachers. I have often noted something curious at convocation receptions when professors meet the parents of their students, usually for the first time. Parents and professors may seem a little awkward at these moments. There is a faint and curious recognition that we have both been involved in the process of making a difference in the lives of their adult children. That the parents’ involvement has been primary goes without saying; that ours may have been formative in some other deeply significant way accounts, perhaps, for the slight uneasiness. In some instances, there may “even be a suspicion or resentment that our intervention has driven or has the potential to drive a wedge into the family dynamic. It is sobering to note that an educator’s influence may not always be welcomed unreservedly. Our meddling may seem presumptuous. We have undertaken the role of fostering change, a role that by natural right and for most of the student’s life has belonged primarily to the parent or guardian. In a manner, our intimate intervention has crossed a boundary. We may distance ourselves from this process and call it “professional”-as it surely is and must be-but to do so is not to strip the relationship of its fundamentally humanistic quality. That parents and professors care to make a difference-that much, at least, we share.

It is doubtful that a difference can be made in people’s lives without an intimacy of some kind. This is not a family intimacy, of course, and still less a lover’s intimacy, although it may share qualities with both of these. The kind of intimacy I am referring to is neither warm, fuzzy love nor tough love. Yet, there is a closeness in the best teaching, a genuinely engaged regard for the other, a compassionate interest in the character, personality, and most of all, the future well-being of the student. It also requires energy, skill, and generous amounts of good will to fashion the kind of classroom environment where both students and professor can share in the mutual rewards of engaged learning.

Making a difference also requires an intimacy with the subject. A professor who wants to make a difference must bring to the classroom an intimate knowledge, background, and expertise in a subject, but beyond this, he or she must also bring a heightened, compelling enthusiasm for sharing that subject. Students may doubt the subject’s relevance to their own lives, present or future, but they ought not to have a shred of doubt about the professor’s conviction that the discipline matters. When we care deeply about a subject, it follows naturally that we want to share that valuable and enriching experience with others. Like laughter, the excitement of learning can be infectious. Thus, while I would have a hard time defending the functional value of, say, Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Beautiful Changes,” I am totally unapologetic about its artfulness, about its beauty, about its genius, and about its relevance to any receptive, inquiring reader. No one will ever convince me that such a poem “does not matter” in the larger scheme of things. It has made and it does make a difference. I am sure that my colleagues in other disciplines have equally as passionate enthusiasms for elegant statistical formulae, for ornately miraculous biological systems, for stunningly complex molecules, or for breathtakingly wonderful cosmological principles. The researchers and scholars in these fields are intimate with their subject, and it is this intimacy-their-love of learning-that makes a difference for our students.

If, as teachers, we sometimes have crippling doubts about our effectiveness, or anxieties that it is mere idealism to think it possible to be successful achieving the goal of intimate learning, then we need only think back to our own days as students, and almost certainly, at least one teacher will stand out as someone who has made a difference in our lives. That poem by Richard Wilbur? Professor O’Grady helped to equip me with the skills to read that poem. He certainly has made a difference in my life. It is good to remind ourselves about such successes because, while professors may be allowed their doubts, failures, or frustrations, the one attitude that will surely defeat us is negativity. The most serious charge that I have ever overheard a student level at a professor was not that he was boring or incompetent but that he was “bitter.” A successful professorship precludes such an attitude, which is what the literary and cultural scholar Harold Bloom means when, in his most recent book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, he says, “I am not a joyous nihilist, since I am a schoolteacher by profession.”

To eschew nihilism or negativity generally, however, does not mean that we need be naive, incurable optimists; rather, it means, simply, that we ought not to lose sight of our goal to make an improving difference in the lives of our students, to contribute, in the most effective ways that we can muster, to their betterment. If our guidance, inspiration, or instruction leads to success, however modest or stellar-that civil servant took my organizational behaviour class; that concert pianist studied with me-and if, more importantly, our involvement with the people in our charge leads to a greater sense of self-worth, then we ought to be, not just gratified, but proud that we have made that kind of difference. This difference has both immediate and far-reaching consequences, most immediate for the student, most far-reaching for society. Perhaps, this is what Beethoven implied when, upon undertaking the guardianship of his nephew, he commented: “I know no more sacred duty than to rear and educate a child.” Musicians sometimes trace the influence of their teachers over many generations. Flutists, for example, will note that their teacher studied with so-and-so, who studied with so-and-so, who was a student of Gaubert, who was a student of Taffanel. They actually draw musical family trees. I think all disciplines should create family trees detailing the history of knowledge and the sources of influence, for such family trees show what I have been emphasizing, namely, that teaching and learning are intimate-they create families that are both cumulative and generational.

There is, finally, another sense in which teachers male a difference, one that goes to the heart of the university’s liberal humanist mission-and I do not flinch at the phrase. To make a difference is to make individual students different in themselves; it is to foster in them a desire to take charge of their own specialness and fashion an intellectual, a professional, and an ethical relationship with their world. And while we may measure the class average for the performance of a skill, the manner in which that skill has been understood, the manner in which it will be used, and the manner in which it is appropriated into a particular student’s make-up has to be, necessarily, different in each case. By this argument, there is no such thing as rote learning-only rote teaching. That is to say, how a skill or concept is taught may be mechanical, but the learning of it, even in the most hostile pedagogical setting, has to be a matter of individual appropriation. When we encourage students to take charge of their own intellectual, moral, and professional growth, we are encouraging the best kind of responsible citizenship-everyone gains. This is, perhaps, the biggest difference of all-it is not so much teaching that makes a difference as it is that learners and teachers committed to an inquiry and to a subject make a difference. Within the intimate fusion of this relationship, each attempts to fashion a responsible and positive change, a change that, as Wilbur’s poem suggests, has the power to influence the learner, but also, by virtue of the learner’s deeper understanding of the subject, the very nature of the world itself.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed

By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;

As a mantis, arranged

On a green leaf, grows

Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves

Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

-RICHARD WILBUR