Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fear and Trembling

One blog I visit with some regularity is "University Diaries" by Margaret Soltan, a professor of English at the University of Maryland. Her virtues include a keen eye for administrative hypocrisy (especially where the corrupt intersection of sports and higher education are concerned) and, perhaps more imporantly, a fondness for both Christopher Lasch and Don DeLillo. How can one gainsay such good taste?

I found a recent post comforting, after a fashion. She discusses, with admirable candor, the nervousness that descends before lecturing. She writes:

"I was, in my first years, rather nervous before each class - could feel my heart beating. I'd rifle through my notes, fingers atremble. The students were abstractions to me, a set of challenges to overcome: get their attention, deal with distracting behavior, impress the following five points upon them...."

My own reaction to reading this was one of relief - "I'm not the only one!" No matter how confident I am about the material at hand, or how well-developed are my lecture notes, I always feel a sensation that I can only describe as stage fright that descends upon me a good half hour before lecture time. Like stage fright, it grows more keen as the hour approaches, and then tends to dissipate once I begin my "performance." And, while perhaps I am still only "in my first years," I find that the nervousness accompanies me ceaselessly and unremittingly. One might conclude I haven't reached the point of professional maturity to have overcome such fear.

But, I turn over another possiblity in my mind. I would, in fact, be worried if I weren't nervous anymore, because that could be a sign that I no longer cared enough about whether I was going to do a good job in the classroom. My nervousness is always bound up with the anxiety that I'll bomb, I'll fail to convey the basic theme of the lecture, I won't adequately hold attention, I will fail as a teacher. In this best sense, the anxiety is not so much concern for my own standing or reputation, but rather a concern that the students benefit from their time in the classroom. Of course, my own standing is bound up with this - if I do my job well, I hope to be well-regarded by the students. But I hope that regard results as a consequence of a job well done.

This is why, I think, "timocracy" is the second-best regime in Plato's description of the various regimes in Books 8-9 of the "Republic." Timocracy - a regime based upon honor - is second best, because our motivation to do justice is not compelled by a standard that is objectively true, eternal and unchanging. Honor is a lower standard, because honor is based upon opinion. Thus, a professor can be honored by students not because he is an excellent professor, but because he is an excellent entertainer. Student evaluations are dangerously opinion-based instruments. However, honor can also be a relatively high standard, since it points to our care for something or someone outside of our selves. We desire the esteem of others, and we seek to avoid shame. While such care can be debased, it is potentially ennobling - in and through that care, we can aspire to improve or ennoble those others.

So, whenever I feel the swell of nervousness before entering the lecture hall, I feel vaguely comforted to know that I haven't stopped caring about teaching, and that (if I am not self-deceived) my reasons for being in this "business" remain true.

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