October 11, 2009

The Virtue of Not Trying


So I’m teaching now, right? Twenty-six art students in a small classroom with terrible acoustics. Trying to get them to read Plato and Nietzsche and Henry Miller and the Unabomber. And I sure as hell wish I had some funny stories to tell about what a debacle it’s become, but it’s actually going fairly . . . okay so far. Not that I’ll ever want to take on this particular experiment in terror again for at least another twenty-five years, but for now—and for a few extra bucks— things are going okay. The students seem bright and responsive, they’re doing the reading, they have things to say, and best of all they laugh at the right times.

            I’ve been told I shouldn’t expect it to last much longer.

            “I’m glad to hear things are going well,” one faculty member told me a few days ago, “but just wait until you get the first assignment. That’s when you’ll find out that the really sharp students—the ones who do the work and have some really good and interesting insights—can’t put a coherent sentence together. That’ll change your opinion real fast.”

            “Hey, that’s great news,” I told her.

            “Yeah, you can usually expect the honeymoon to last until about the middle of the semester. By that time you’ll get to know them pretty well, and they’ll get to know you. After that everyone just kind of gives up.”

            “That sounds like something I’d say.”

            “You probably will.”

            I have no doubt that she’s right, but until that point I think I’ll take what little satisfaction I can get out of it. I’ve put too much work into it already.

            In fact that’s sort of the problem. It occurred to me yesterday that I’m putting way too much effort into this stupid little one-semester, one-day-a-week class. From the moment the idea was first tossed my way about a year ago, I’ve been focusing nearly all my energy on this class. I think it’s an unconscious reaction against the knowledge that the whole thing was going to be a smoldering train wreck from week one.

Making a reading list, then narrowing it down to fit into fifteen weeks, then narrowing it down some more to a realistic amount of reading, given the attention span of Today’s Young People. Arranging the reading list into some sort of coherent and logical order. Then rearranging it a few times. Choosing a few appropriate films that would best complement the readings. Then setting up a simple little website so the students could access most of the readings in electronic form. (Actually it was Morgan who set up the website, as I’m incompetent when it comes to such things.) Getting copies made of those readings that weren’t available in electronic form. Then getting audio versions of the books in question so I could re-read them myself beforehand. Contacting a couple of people who might make fun and terrifying guest speakers. Then composing hour-long lectures for each class and honing those down. Creating attendance sheets, learning my way around the school, filling out school paperwork, rearranging the syllabus again. Coming up with assignments. Rehearsing the lectures again and again and again (necessary, as I’m a miserable speaker—I tend to stutter, mumble, toss in meaningless references to Whit Bissell, and stare at the ground).

            And that was all months before class started. Now that things are underway, I find myself doing even more every week. Obsessively. Transcribing attendance sheet info onto the computer. Practicing the next week’s lecture. Checking the official roster to see if anyone’s dropped. Checking the school email to see if anyone has a question or some sort of excuse. Telling drop-ins “I’m sorry no, we don't have any more room so I can’t sign you up.” Then repeating myself when they tell me how much they really need to get into my class.

            Condensing my original full-length lecture down to a sparse list of bullet points to refer to during class in the event that I forget something. (To date I have forgotten something important in every single class, but have never once referred to my notes.) Changing my mind about the next week’s film. Listening to the audio version of the next week’s reading so I can pull a quote out of my head and look smart. Checking the email again. Practicing the lecture some more. Making adjustments to my notes.

            It never stops. And while all that is going on, everything else is falling by the wayside. I haven’t cleaned the apartment in weeks. There’s some stuff I need to run to the post office. Bills are piling up. I smell bad. I need to write a column or two. But there’s no time with so much to do for class, and the next class is coming up in just another five days!

            On the one hand yeah, of course doing all this prep work is a good thing when it comes to the actual class itself. The lectures are rehearsed, I’m prepared to answer most any question without making too much shit up, and everything’s timed out very well. As far as the class is concerned, all the prep is making my life much easier, and I won’t need to do much scrambling come the end of the semester.

            But it’s starting to drive me a little nuts.

The other day when the guy who got me the gig asked how things were going, I started telling him about all this.

“Yeah, I used to be that way, too,” he said. “First nine, ten years I taught I put hours and hours of work into each class. I’d rehearse the lectures, spend days in the library, I kept up with the paperwork, all that. It’s what you’re supposed to do. And it’s the smart thing to do, because in the long run it really will make your life easier.”

            “Uh-huh?” This guy had been teaching for about twenty years, so I figure he knew what he was talking about.

            “Then one day—I forget what the hell was going on—but one day I stumbled into class hung over and completely unprepared. Had no idea what I was gonna say. And you know what? It was the best class I ever taught in my life. I haven’t prepared for a lecture since.”

            It wasn’t long after that revelation that something occurred to me. Even if I completely blew a lecture—left out the most important points about Nietzsche, say, or forgot to mention that Louis-Ferdinand Celine was a doctor—who would notice?


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.