I’m a Teacher!?

Teaching my first class was so exciting. Suddenly, my life made sense. All of my personality quirks—my love of sharing ideas with others and experimenting with new ways of understanding, my goofy personality, my ability to remember and recount random stories—had a place! In the classroom! I loved teaching. And I continued to love it for years. Now, I don’t. Or do I? Maybe part of the reason that I’m doing this intellectual history project is to figure out whether or not I still want to claim that “I’m a teacher!” 

I took a year off between my masters and Ph.D. For part of that time I worked on a web-project that never happened. My goal was to take all of my research in feminism and create a resource site for others. It was partly inspired by a Feminist Theory Website that I had been using. I first encountered it in 1998. I can’t believe it’s still online. I recall spending hours in my apartment in Minneapolis working on plans for organizing all the theories and concepts. But, since I had no technical knowledge of how to create a website and WordPress and Moveable Type were years from being developed, I eventually gave up. It’s funny to think back on that failed experiment, initiated in early 1999. Even before I  attended a Ph.D program, I was thinking about ways to be a scholar and educator online.

In the midst of brainstorming about a “feminist web page,” I applied for Ph.D programs in Women’s Studies and Philosophy and got a part-time job as a reference librarian at a local business college, Rasmussen College. During the spring of 2000, around the time I was accepted for the Ph.D program in Women’s Studies at Emory University, I was unexpectedly offered the chance to teach an Introduction to the Humanities Course at Rasmussen. The instructor who usually taught it was suddenly unavailable.

I had never taught any class before, especially not an introduction to the humanities, with a focus on art, for college students. During the weeks leading up to the start of the class, I frantically read through the required textbook, trying to pick up as much rudimentary knowledge as I could on the history of painting, music, sculpture and film. Through that preparation, I learned one of my most important lessons for how to be a teacher: Even though you’re the teacher, you don’t know everything. In fact, you might know that much, just enough to be a week or two (or day…or hour…) ahead of your students. 

I really enjoyed teaching that class. I learned a lot about art. I was able to plan tons of field trips and meet my students at the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I got to watch and teach Dr. Strangelove. And I learned that, fundamentally, I was a teacher. I wanted to teach and felt moved to share ideas and have important conversations with others. And I loved crafting experimental assignments that encouraged students to think in new ways.

13 years later, can I still make that claim? Am I teacher? Do I want to be one? Consistently, one of the things that I’ve liked best about being a teacher is sharing in the process of learning with students. I like to create classroom spaces where I deliberately don’t know a lot, where I’m not an expert, but a learner and more knowledgable/experienced guide who is being exposed to new ideas just days before my students. My lack of knowledge makes me a more compassionate and energetic educator. Is there room in the current academic environment, with rising costs and increasing demands for faculty to prove their worth (as experts, as teacher who produce concrete and quantifiable results), to be a teacher-as-guide instead of teacher-as-the-Expert?