being undone · teaching

Teaching and All The Feels

I have that nervous feeling in my stomach again–those butterflies, or that flip-flopping feeling, a vague nausea and discomfort. It’s final paper time, and while I’m not writing any myself, I assign them. And it makes me incredibly nervous, shepherding my grad students through their projects’ various stages. I want so badly for them to succeed; I worry so much about how tired they look, or frustrated, or, worse, how silent they get.

Teaching. It’s very emotional.

Over the past ten years, as I have wrestled with my teaching persona, teaching practices, teaching goals, one thread runs constant–trying to manage my own emotions. I started out perhaps over-attached to results: if a student did poorly on an exam, say, I would take all that on as a personal failure of mine. There was a lot of crying. It was not helpful. I tried to learn to not take it as a personal affront when students were often absent. I had to learn that sometimes it’s not about me when students look bored and tired every single semester once week 7 rolls around. I was very emotional but about the wrong things and it was gruelling and ineffective.

Then, for a while, I tried too hard to swing the other way. Teaching became more contractual and transactional. I would lay out some rules and try to enframe the teaching situation as mutually beneficial but largely impersonal: trying to protect my own feelings and recover from my over investment in outcomes that were beyond my control, I tried to take my feelings out of the classroom. But even as I tried to pull away from my misguided mother hen tendencies, my students still sometimes cried, or got angry, and I was doing them a new disservice by trying to deny them that reality.

Real learning is transformative–and all transformations are fraught with fear and excitement and loss and gain. The crucible of the new self is necessarily hot; it burns. Teaching, I find, is as emotionally and personally wrenching as learning is, and I need to find new ways to incorporate this reality into my work, even as I create some boundaries for myself and my students.

For me this starts with acknowledging that I care a lot about the material I teach, and I am, actually, really invested in having students learn it. This might be an ethical and respectful methodology for research on the internet, or it might be the history of the www, or it might be the difference between technological determinism and social construction, or it might be the design theory of affordance, or it might be feminist pragmatics, or it might be how to make a daguerrotype. It really matters to me a lot that students understand these things and, crucially, see the value in them.

When I teach, I necessarily make myself incredibly vulnerable to my students, by reaching out to them with ideas and sources and methods and assignments and illustrations, and asking them to hold on. It requires, I find, an incredible outlay of empathy for me to try to find where the students are at already, intellectually and ideologically or whatever, and go to them there to ask them to come with me to where the class is designed to take us. It is rarely the case now that I teach just from what I want to say; I’m always doing this sort of dance where I try to figure out the emotional temperature of the room, poll the interests, prod the knowledge base, and figure out a context-specific approach.

The best way I can find to describe it is this: It feels like being on a first date with 40 people at the same time. Every single time I teach.

To be clear, I’m not in it to be “loved” or even liked. I’m trying to put myself–Aimée Morrison, the situated human being–behind the ideas but of course teaching and learning are human acts so I’m still there. Reaching out, trying to get in 40 heads and hearts at the same time, trying to shift something in someone’s understanding: “even though this was a required course, it was surprisingly useful.”

I begin finally to understand that this is why teaching days are so gruelling. Why if I teach in the morning, I’m not going to be writing in the afternoon. It’s the interpersonal work, the mutual vulnerability, the work of empathy, the work of caring. In my worst moments I want to withdraw–I say things like, “If they won’t do the readings, to hell with them.” But really, I am usually overwhelmed with the sheer importance of the work I’m trying to do, and how much I care and how much I care about having students come to care about what I teach as well. I’m not naturally empathetic and I’m much more inclined to try to structure the world into rule-based interactions we can process cognitively and rationally, so the empathy required of teaching is not something I come to naturally. It’s something over time I’ve come to learn is crucial: learning is transformative, and thus scary and personal. Teaching must be these things too. All the feels.

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