Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Moment in Teaching

Yesterday I had one of those days in teaching that make it all seem worthwhile...even though that's an illusion in my dead-end adjunct line of work.

At the beginning of the term, I always give my first-year college students this poem by Billy Collins, entitled Introduction to Poetry:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Then we spend the rest of the term arguing about how you can find the "true meaning" of a poem without beating it with the bits of hose acquired in high school. I show them, urge them, provide risk-free ways for them to try something different, grade them down for doing the same old things they're used to, and sometimes, at this point, I fall into despair. But yesterday a lot of them got it. I saw the look of surprise on their faces, and some of the formerly silent students spoke up in class. They've learned how to read something and interpret it for themselves. They're actually paying more attention to the poem than to guessing "what the author meant" or "what the teacher wants." It's such a good moment I want to prolong it. I know it won't last.

Once they've seen it, though, they'll want another glimpse. Just a quick, tentative peek. So yesterday's moment makes me feel that what I've been wearing myself out for has been worth all the trouble.


Libby said...

I love those moments. They make it all worthwhile.

lemming said...

Which is more addictive, heroin or the teaching high?

Anonymous said...

Oh god, what a hysterical poem. I just this morning was helping my poor daughter tie the Great Gatsby to a chair, beating it also with a hose until it would confess what all the secrets meant. It seemed helpless to tell us. We'll resume our tortures tonight.