We've had the now-infamous "why we teach" meme; I was thinking today of a related topic - why I enjoy teaching. Not in the sense of, "I enjoy teaching because it brings light to oh-so-many lives," but in the sense of, "Today, at this specific place and time, class was fun." Because truthfully? Not every class meeting is fun. Plenty are, but not all. What makes the difference?
The thing I've realized is that it's not just about student preparation and performance and so on. Sure, it's pretty much a given that if students aren't prepared, class will NOT be fun. But I have taught classes (individual sessions, that is, not a whole term) where the students were prepared, bright-eyed and busy-tailed, engaged, and willing to talk about the material, and class has gone well, but for me, it hasn't been fun. It's even possible that it was fun for the students, just not fun for me.
By not fun, I don't mean painful or unpleasant or anything like that - I guess I really just mean, well, boring.
It seems I've reached a point in my (so-called) career where there are some things I've taught often enough that oh my god I am SO BORED with them. I know that even if I've read a text seventeen hundred times, it's the first time for my students, but sometimes it's really hard to remember that. And yes, one can change the readings around, and I do, but even so, after teaching a course six or seven times, certain conversations get a little old. Because there are certain conversations that you have to have when teaching a given subject, regardless of the specific texts you're teaching. They're conversations that I consider absolutely necessary for students who are approaching this all for the very first time, but when you've had them so many times before....
Take the Crusades, a subject completely outside my research interests but which I teach due to a variety of circumstances. The Crusades is a perennially popular medieval topic - it's one of the few medieval topics students have heard of, plus, you know, blood and guts - and so I've taught it a lot, probably more than I've taught stuff in my area of research. It's not that I don't want to teach the Crusades; I like teaching it - the students get into it, and there's lots of good stuff to talk about - lots of drama and conflict and all sorts of fun stuff. It's got built-in relevance in today's world, and it serves as a great entree into considering the impact of religion on society in lots of ways (something else relevant to today's world, but also great for introducing students to some of the peculiarities of the Middle Ages).
Anyway, it seems to me that if you're discussing the Crusades, you have to - HAVE to - discuss the question of why people went. I don't think you could possibly NOT talk about that. It doesn't matter which texts you're reading, you have to talk about it. But can I tell you how uninterested I currently am in discussing why people went on Crusade? (Not that I'm teaching the Crusades this term - hypothetically speaking.) It's not at all that I think I have all the answers about why people went on Crusade or that there's nothing else to be said on the question. And it's not that I don't think students are incapable of coming up with new observations on a text, either, because I do - each time I teach a text, a student comes up with something I hadn't thought of. It's just that I, personally, have reached the limits of my own interest in the subject. I've considered the question enough times that I've come up with an answer that works for me, and I'm good with that. I'm ready to move on.
Except, of course, that if I'm teaching the Crusades, I can't.
I was thinking about this today because I was thinking about how much I'm enjoying one of my current classes, and I was realizing that it wasn't so much that the students are so great or that every day goes swimmingly (though the students are pretty great and the class meetings so far have gone pretty well, but not in a way that's radically different from other classes I've taught). It's more that I'm enjoying this so much because I haven't worked through this all in my head, I don't know exactly what I think about it all, and so I get to work through all the issues with the students. To put it bluntly, I'm getting just as much out of this course as they are.
My relationship to the topic of this course is very different from my relationship to the Crusades. While this class isn't explicitly on my research (at all), a lot of it is set in the right century and country. I do find things in the course readings that I note down as relevant to my research. It's also pretty focused on a specific phenomenon, rather than a chunk of time or geographical region. Beyond that, though, I've only taught this topic once before, as a course aimed at first- and second-year students who, it turned out, were all pretty much fulfilling requirements. This time round, it's an upper-division course that fulfills no requirements. (That I know of.) So obviously that leads to a very different kind of class dynamic, one that's immensely more satisfying than in the previous incarnation.
But seriously, I really enjoy this class because I'm learning lots of cool shit. Some of that's coming from me, but a lot of it is coming from them. I didn't change the readings, so it's not that the material is new to me - but they come up with things I hadn't thought of, and I put that stuff together with things I already had thought of, and the result is something entirely new to both of us. This is one of the few courses I've taught where I feel like the students and I are collectively doing research, and coming up with what I consider honest-to-God scholarly arguments.
I hope this doesn't sound dismissive of my students' efforts in other courses. I have had many, many students who have produced really great stuff in my classes. I've had a lot of students who are way smarter than I am. But the structure of many history courses just doesn't allow for what I think of as really scholarly thinking. For instance, I used to teach the first half of the World Civ survey. I actually enjoy World History a lot, for some of the same reasons that I enjoy the Crusades. But it just seems to me that given the parameters of your average World Civ course, you're not able to address the material at what I'd consider a scholarly level. This has nothing to do with the abilities of the students; it's just that scholarship doesn't do what a World Civ course does. Comparing and contrasting the Roman and Han empires is a valuable classroom exercise and students can learn a lot from it, but in Intro to World Civ, we're never going to make that comparison in what I would consider a really scholarly way - in a way in which I learn just as much as the students, and what I learn is NOT about how better to teach the course or put materials together or emphasize themes, but is an actual understanding of the history that I wouldn't have had otherwise. At the intro level, that's because students are simply learning how to do this thing called history. Upper-division courses aren't always better, though, because they're still often divided into bigger units than your average scholar tries to tackle in their work.
Graduate seminars are probably a whole different kettle of fish. I know my program had an "Intro to Medieval History" sequence, which might not have been much more fun to teach than the undergraduate medieval survey. But there were also always those seminars that reflected the instructor's current research project, like Modernity and Violence, or The African-American Experience in South Africa - cool stuff like that. In some undergraduate contexts, you can teach courses like these; the one I'm teaching now is along these lines. But there's still always that need to teach World Civ, Western Civ, Intro to US History, etc. etc... and if you develop a cool topics course, it often ends up as a permanent addition to the catalog and a warhorse of the departmental offerings. In heavily teaching-oriented departments (as opposed to a doctoral program, perhaps), there's not always a lot of incentive to keep developing new courses, because the chances of connecting them all to your own research interests are not good, and it's a hell of a lot of work. (It's not that developing courses like these isn't work for graduate instructors, too. But if you can turn your current research project into a graduate seminar it seems to me you're making it serve double-duty in a way that's less common at undergraduate, teaching-oriented institutions.)
Obviously, me learning history is not what teaching is about. Producing scholarly work - the kind of scholarly work that teaches me something new - is not a realistic expectation for most college classes - again, not because all undergraduates are incapable of doing so (though many are, and we have to work with a range of students), but because the structure of their courses doesn't allow it. Nor is it the point. The point is for students to learn a whole bunch of stuff that, by now, I've known for a long time - but that doesn't matter, because they don't know it yet.
But me learning something new is what makes teaching fun. I take great satisfaction in my students' learning and progress, but it's not always fun.
The course I'm teaching now, though? Fun!