“The Great Professor”

“The Great Professor”

Michael Moore
1993 3M Teaching Fellow

he theme of this anniversary volume of reflections-making a difference- daringly conceives of the best teaching in higher education not as a matter of dissemination, crowd-pleasing performance, or due diligence but, rather, as a matter of influence. It provocatively conceives of the best learning not as progress in the accumulation of specialized knowledge and skills but, rather, as a process of individual awakening and change. That emphasis or perspective matches up with my instinct, dating back to my own floundering student days, that a good teacher’s role is to be the activating catalyst in a chemical reaction.

Education implies change. The teacher’s value-added function, like any catalyst, is to do something for students that they cannot do for themselves. To elicit (e-duce?) something different. Otherwise, why would we suppose adult learners need teachers at all? Why would we much care whether this or that instructor better “facilitates” such unremarkable outcomes as relatively more digested information or relatively more efficient technique?

University teaching is more than putting a pleasant human face on arrangements for the “delivery” and absorption of a certain freight of prescribed information, opinion, or procedure. That would surely not be worth to its “customers” what it costs. We owe them more than a comfortable embellishment of what they (or we) already know. They deserve more than to be told what they want to hear. Helping them learn how to imagine, desire, and achieve something more, something different, is the purpose of university teaching.

So piquant a conception of our responsibility is of course no recipe for popularity among students or colleagues. That’s why my initial reaction to receiving teaching awards was surprise and bemusement. There is something profoundly ironic, and yet delicious, about official approval for iconoclasm. The prestigious 3M Teaching Fellowship has been especially gratifying and vindicating, because it signals not only the respect of so many students, alumni, staff, and faculty at my home institution, over so many years, but also the peer recognition, in stiff competition, of a national community of interdisciplinary faculty and educational developers. It would be false modesty to pretend here that I’m not proud of earning that high regard. Or to deny seeing it as one rigorous test bf my undoubtedly “different” philosophy of teaching.

Still, such thoughts lead inevitably to the question of how we can ever know in retrospect whether we have, by being different, made a difference for others. What kind of difference was it? Is it a difference that mattered? What so called “outcomes” might ever be adduced to confirm it? Hence, the invitation to contribute to this volume, and to consider including the voices of former students, became for me an occasion to risk “testing” things further.

So, out of the blue, I’ve sheepishly contacted five former students from various eras, asking whether they remember anything “different” about my apparent conception and actual practice of teaching or mentoring, and whether it made any important difference for them? I chose these people because they were always reliably shrewd and frank (no pious platitudes) and because of their current professional perspectives. Here follow their answers, with my reactions.

More than a decade ago, Michele was my student in several courses ranging from an introductory survey of literature to a graduate seminar. Today she is herself an exceptionally fine university instructor. In an amusing (non-?) sequitur, she says, “Michael Moore is the teacher that I work constantly to be. The students sometimes dislike me.” Exactly. Educating is not about being loveable, though it certainly is about caring deeply enough to coax learners well beyond the familiar or comfortable. That’s why it’s so gratifying to hear that my pestering was trusted, was different, and did make the intended difference: “What Michael Moore gave me … was a sense that I had the power to come to know what I didn’t know-that the power and ability was in me … those ideas just waiting to be drawn out of myself-those thoughts awaiting my own discovery of their presence.”

Aaron, now a lawyer, similarly remembers being both daunted and reassured by the risks, the mischief, into which all my students are invited-“a leap of faith in you as the leader and guide, and also a leap of faith in our own ability to engage with challenging ideas and gain the intellectual rewards … an appeal for the individual student to step bravely and decisively into this strange new field of knowledge.” As for making a difference, what more could any teacher want to hear years later than “It continues to make learning fun, even in … securities law, auto repair, vegetarian cooking, or conversational Russian.” Something tells me this guy never needed any leader or guide, or enticement into challenges.

But because even Aaron’s sidelong glance at the more normative discourse of “teacher-centered” authority or “leadership” makes me uneasy, I also particularly welcome the following reminiscence by a third respondent, Caroline, my student twenty years ago and a secondary educational consultant today:

I had a conversation with Professor Moore regarding the Robin Williams character in the movie Dead Poets Society. He told me that he felt Williams’ character was not a good teacher because what he did in the classroom was all about him, not about his students. It is quite the opposite with Dr. Moore …. He always had a knack for understanding what each of his students needed and finding a way to support them in their work.

Ah yes. The indelible image or myth of “the great professor” in innumerable popular films is a tough act to follow. Nor should it be admired, or expected. The spontaneous tribute paid to the schoolteacher by all the students at the end of that Williams film (leaping onto their desks crying “Captain, my Captain”) makes my blood run cold. Not simply because it so misrepresents the nature of academic life and work, but because its generic fantasy about life changing virtuoso lecture performances (basically a dozen recyclable quotable quotes?) is a mockery of the many less histrionic ways in which real professors can and often do effect genuine differences among individual learners in an actual world.

What I remember most about another student, Dennis, is his hot jazz saxophone. Maybe that improvisational spirit is why he imagines he learned from me “to fail magnificently, to take the kind of risks that make difference and. transformation not only the crucial elements of thought that they must be, but crucial elements of my own pedagogy as an English professor as well.” My far less heroic memory of the situation is that Dennis needed no encouragement to be more adventurous. On the contrary, in this case the intervention-the difference- that needed to be made was a gradual re-directing of his talent into line with what Dennis himself now calls “intellectual work.” In teaching there are times for lighting fires, and other times for banking them. I’m delighted that Dennis’ own students now have a teacher so determined to be a “positive, knowledge-affirming influence.”

Influence can exert itself … differently. I presume that many people would rate wide research discipleship (self-reproduction?) as one token of great educating. I do not. Almost none of my students ever become professors in my particular areas of scholarly and teaching specialty. The “differences” I’m proudest of making are the modest successes of students who seemed least likely to succeed at all, who would least dream of pursuing academic careers, and who have probably long forgotten the subject matter of those courses. And yet I value highly (and not just for its rarity) the perspective of Nat, who does teach today in my own specialist fields. He too mentions “challenge” (Am I really so formidable? How little we realize the image we project!), but he also remembers that. it was understood, and made a difference to him and to others:

I know that it was this kind of effort to respond to our thinking that often inspired our class to our best efforts … because we knew how closely and carefully he read our work. So, on the one hand, his style was performative, provocative, and calculatedly frustrating, while on the other, he cultivated a sincere pedagogical relationship with his students, and I believe that this combination is what made his teaching so effective; he did not simply “make us think,” he made us engage with the very process of our education.

If any of that is even partly true, it is perhaps the kind of “teaching evaluation” most worth having. Even if it represents (as surely it does) an idealized rather than any embodied professor, it expresses a powerful idea about teaching and learning. An idea I’m grateful to have somehow fostered among students past and present. In the face ·of so much that is adrift, cynical, and disheartening in higher education today, it confirms that at least sometimes we are doing the right thing, not the easy, pleasant, or conventional thing. And that this difference is sometimes recognized and appreciated by our students. And that it did (and still does) make a difference.