Teaching as a Vocation

Teaching as a Vocation (a personalist accounting)

            Sometimes those who can do, also teach. And teaching is also a doing, at least of sorts. Shaw’s perhaps unknowing indictment is well taken, however, for the vast majority of what passes for teaching in our contemporary systems, at whatever level, is tantamount to mass regurgitation and within the framework of patent unthought. This is what needs be for any social system to reproduce itself without too many mutations, not unlike the patterns our genetic proteins must follow. At the same time, the world does not wait for us, nor any systemic congery we have constructed for ourselves. So, within the mass, there must always be the mutant, as it were, the catalyst for a transformation of thinking and even of human experience itself, so that reproduction is itself given new life. And those who feel that assignation, who treat teaching in the traditional sense of vocation, are perhaps more apt to become those agents of necessary change. What follows is a brief narrative of both pedagogy as a discourse and of my own experience becoming both a pedagogue and an education theorist.

            Teaching as an Vocational Experience:

            Though I taught my first few classes as a graduate assistant in the Winter Term of 1989, I only became a sessional instructor five years later. Five years after that, I was awarded my first tenure stream professorial position, and for some twenty years occupied this perch in various units and in three universities, ending my career after a five-year chairpersonship of a liberal arts department. A quarter-century in the university classroom, with more than 140 courses taught over that time, and my experience was one of some irony. At the beginning, I felt the calling of teaching as an authentic assignation, but by the end, I felt nothing of the sort. Does the saint recuse himself from his hagiographic similitude? Does the pilgrim quit his progress? Or for that matter, does the dictator ever simply step down? Clearly, one’s personal sense of what one must do can shift over time. My friends have suggested that I teach still, just in different and distanciated venues, sometimes digitally, other times informally, and I have done various writing workshops and series over the past few years, though now even these are fading memories. I have not been inside a bona fide classroom in over eight years.

            As vocations go, teaching has many rewards, both in the light and, to be discussed below, in the shadows as well. But teaching presumes that one can also learn from one’s students, alter one’s pedagogic trajectory to fit their needs, or have at least the nerve, if not the outright gall, to suggest to them that they do not know their needs, or are only partially conscious thereof. This may seem rash, but any vocation demands also vision. The saint does not brook debate regarding ideal action in the world, and indeed seeks to make mere living action into transhistorical act. The pilgrim will not be detoured from her goal, however afar, and in turn will not be deterred from pursuing it by all means, even if such sometimes stray into the unmentionable. The dictator’s Diktat is indeed generally unfit to print, but nevertheless, it commends itself with utmost consistency to the principle of vocation. Teaching, much less glamorous than any of these, is nonetheless safer, and to the point of complacency. The goal of university teaching is to be, speaking of ideals, open-ended, improvisatory, iconoclastic, critical. Its actual character tends toward the routine, even the otiose, as evidenced by my own professors, trained as they were in mid-century, and many by canonical figures. By the time I possessed the terminal degree from a world top-40 institution, I was but once removed from the likes of Talcott Parsons – I possess to this day many of his office files in which he stored his accumulation of journal articles, as well as the papers themselves – Erving Goffman, Claude Levi-Strauss, Raymond Firth, Victor Turner, Virginia Oleson, as well as others, including the great Dorothy Smith. With this last I had the privilege of dialogue much later in my career, when I myself was nominally worthy thereof. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, their elite training in the human sciences, my own professors’ course outlines were sometimes forty years backdated, sometimes even non-existent, for these were the days when university administrations actually kept their distance from the pedagogic scene.

            I had numerous teachers of merit, but by far the most important was no less than Dorothy Heathcote, the legendary drama pedagogue, by whom I was taught firsthand in the summer of 1980 when I was but fourteen. It was a transformational experience, that summer festival workshops series, with same-aged peers and the most brilliant pedagogue for youth I have ever known. It was she who told me that I had the potential to teach, and she who took the first step with me and showed me a path upon which that potential could evolve into a practice. For many years as a professor in my own right, I attempted to conjure for my students that same sidereal realm in which she moved so effortlessly. Heathcote was compassionate, fearless, unbounded, and quick on her feet. She had about her an aura of gentle invincibility; this is the only manner of description that comes to mind when I think of her. She showed me that the best pedagogue did not so much live and die by her students’ aptitudes or abilities, but rather helped that student understand the very meaning of life and death in its relation to experience, to knowledge, and to education.

            My longest-lasting teacher, and also my most personal, has always been my sister, a five decade veteran of the public schools, in which she occupied almost every role imaginable, from itinerant music teacher to principle, through drama director and superintendent’s office curriculum planner. That she continues apace today, working as the field supervisor in teacher training for her regional university, attests to the truer sense of vocation in pedagogy which is no longer present for myself. One’s experience of teaching as a vocation includes moments of ethical fulfillment – the most commonplace is when a student relates how you have transformed their life and given them a keen drive to succeed or at the very least a hope and an aspiration to be more than they had been before – as well as a consistent sense of existential contentment. No one I know has had more of these future-oriented moments than has my sister, and every one well-earned.

            That I have a number of life-long friendships that began in the classroom is a lasting blessing. That I met the young woman who was to become my future wife in the classroom strikes me as a kind of miracle. The many thousands of students, most of them marginal and many the first-time college attempts in their respective families, have of course come and gone. Those once known fairly intimately I now know nothing of. Those who were obstreperous have long been forgotten. And all this is as it should be, for another principle of the vocation is its not quite diffident, but indeed quite dispassionate, stance and instantiation of itself. Assignation is itself impersonal, for whatever the source of such, be it the Fates or the Furies or both, could have chosen anyone in the end. A vocation is the result of a Valkyric light, shone upon the fragile being merely in the world and making him of that selfsame world.

            Teaching as a Fix, and as a Pimp

            But teaching as a vocation has its shadow side. If there is magic in it, there is also present sorcery. For myself, I was an attention-seeker, and the fact that I could transfix large audiences, keeping them on the edge of their collective seats for up to 90 minutes, only fuelled the sense that I was, as an individual, more than my vocation would, or should, admit. My narcissism could be rationalized away as being in the service of good product, and clever production. If the classroom experience with Professor Loewen was a commodity worth the price, even in steeply ascending university tuitions, I became, in that space, my own fetish object. I bathed in the applause, and I glowed in the admiration of people far too young to make any worthwhile distinctions of mature character. I came to need the fix, captivating, enervating, and especially offending cohorts of students, getting younger and younger as I myself aged. At present, long outside of such contexts, I have to police myself yet regarding the motives for my more critical work. That I am not always entirely successful any readership will attest. The fact that my course evaluations bore no signs of my self-interest was remarkable but also an important relief. One could say, ‘whatever it takes to get up there and kill it’, but as an ethicist, I maintain my doubts. Teaching as a vocation might cater to the fix, but it does not admit the fixation.

            Nor does it the lust. I was a member of what I think, and hope, to be the final generation of academic gigolos. A young male professor, the campus menace and, at least in my gendered druthers, the patent nemesis of the coed. What I can say, is that I never cheated on any one of them, and that they were all adults. That I even fell in love with three of those otherwise uncounted might also be worth something. And of course, my wife of more than two decades rose to the very apex of this otherwise somewhat sordid pyramid scheme cum bedroom farce. The teaching vocation cast as a pimp is unique to the university, or at least one would hope that it is, and as such it places a more stringent ethical demand upon the advanced pedagogue. Institutions have belatedly framed policy surrounding ‘campus romance’ as it is still sometimes sentimentally referred to, as if this were still 1950 or so, and I was witness to these changes, for such policies were non-existent not only when I was myself a student but also for about a third of my professional career. Romance or no, intimate liaisons with one’s own students is not recommended, and I say that as perhaps one of the very least prudish persons on the planet. Inevitably, one’s emotions, or worse, one’s desires, obviate the nobility of the pedagogic plane. It is not that all students must be ‘treated the same’, as if they are but lab rats, but rather that each student must be given their ownmost care and concernfulness, that which is most apt for their current condition, and most astute regarding their current abilities. Beyond this, the tables of desire can be easily turned. I was myself stalked no less than five times, and those represent the cases of which I was aware. By four women, one man, and fortunately the fellow involved was absolutely non-threatening and only one of the young women was, at least to me who is hardly GQ, unattractive. Even so, desire is a game that two can play, further obfuscating both the discourse and dialogue which must be present in authentic teaching.

            Teaching as a Discursive Activity:

            And speaking of which, late in my teaching career I somewhat randomly became an educational theorist. I have now written two books and a number of articles in the field, and I was both astonished and honored that my 2012 book has been used in multiple programs for curricular and pedagogic renewal. For me, the study of teaching became almost as important as teaching itself, and I was able to, as a more mature pedagogue, bring this work into the classroom, thus making it more historically conscious of itself, and allowing students to begin to claim a sense of the wider contexts within which teaching both functioned as a critical discourse as well as its very opposite. My enduring idols of modern education are John Dewey and William James, two pillars of pragmatism but more than this, two transcendental teachers and very much public figures. The present work in digital media I have undertaken with my corporate co-founder and business partner, Avinash Pillay, a true genius of the new age and someone who himself has all the makings of an effective pedagogue, remain profoundly in debt to Dewey and James, and their own attempts at disseminating more widely the history of ideas and the philosophy of consciousness entire, halting and of course technically limited as they were in their own time.

            To read what other teachers have to say about teaching is kindred with reading writers writing about writing, but more on that in a companion piece. Suffice to say that experience is both a great teacher in itself, but also, in its own shadowy form, a purveyor of bias, even bigotry. ‘I know how to do this and I don’t need to learn anything new about it’ might well be the least of it, regarding the poor attitudes the veteran teacher can accumulate. More subtle, and thus more dangerous, is the evolving sense that I can master any classroom ‘situation’, and that I am the master of any student. That I am unassailable not only in my opinions, but also in my very presence. That I, in a word, have moved beyond the need to risk myself.

            But in fact, within authentic dialogue, there is not only present the dialectic, which is objective without being objectificatory, but also, at a personal and a subjective ‘level’, a ‘diacritic’ function which entails that participants willingly risk not merely their beliefs but their entire manner of being; the way they have lived until this moment. The teacher is a mere resource and more experienced participant in the realm of dialogue. It is an intensely hermeneutic realm, and what I mean by this is simply that it entails translation, interpretation, and interaction unframed by specific discursive tropes. I have written at length about ‘hermeneutic pedagogy’, so suffice to state here that if either student or teacher is unwilling or unable to place one’s very reason for being on the pedagogic table, the results emanating from any lesser classroom or other context will tend toward the merely reproductive. This is not a case of the professor giving over his authority to his students, or even the by now cliché sense that classrooms should be ‘student-centered’. Even learning centered classrooms, in contrast to teaching centered say, still does not reach the apogee of authenticity in dialogue. Of course, the standards of intimacy which can be tractioned in various classes and courses must be utterly aware of the students’ own presence and their willingness to risk themselves. But I have always pushed my students to expand not only their perspective in relation to history and thought itself, but with regard to their own capabilities. I have encouraged them to ask any question, no matter how impolitic or unfashionable, and that they may speak to any topic, if only to express their incomplete knowledge, which is in turn a more profound expression of our incomplete beings, to be finished only in mine ownmost death. This concept of incompleteness is of the utmost in a serious pedagogy, for it reminds young people that no matter the life-phase or one’s ‘amount’ of experience both personal and cultural, that we are, ideally, always learning, and that the new is only what fully overturns and overcomes what we once thought we knew.

            Teaching the Vocation of Teaching:

            Lastly, I would like to add a few lines about how one’s sense of vocation in general is itself transformed by the experience of teaching.

            A vocation begins with wide eyes and bright imaginings. It resonates with childlike wonder and perhaps also even a smidgeon of childish anticipation, as if each new classroom were an unopened birthday gift of unknown proportion and value. It should carry one through many other vicissitudes of a life, its own exiguous thread enduring any strain, suffering any insult, and shrugging away any care. And this personal function may last the entire life course, even if its objective content and very character be altered, as it has been for myself. Teaching as a vocation should also stand aloof to both bribe and blackmail, for it should fear no evil other than being wary of that within the shrouds of its own shadows. Over time, one’s own sense of what one is doing alters its vantage point, pointing away from imminent joy and as well pleasure eminent, and toward the more practiced sensibility of ‘Am I doing this well, what can be better, how have my students changed over time, what now does the world ask of all of us?’ and other like queries ongoing. One progresses from painstakingly constructing course outlines, living and dying by every course evaluation, memorizing entire lectures and the like, to being able to gain the larger pattern and paint the more complete picture, of being able to walk into any classroom absolutely cold and simply flick on the killswitch, and of not being overly concerned about either the latest pretty face or the most recent and in fact non-teachable failure, both of which will ere be present as long as one remains an active teacher. These changes represent to oneself both a personal evolution as well as one discursive and dialogic.

            A vocation ends simply when one decides to end one’s relationship with it. Its presence then become a kind of remanant, but a good-matured one and one not given to haunting either our incomplete dreams or our doubts about what we in fact have accomplished, however distant and dated such may be. When I left teaching I was momentarily lost for purpose in action, but I was never alone, for the experience of assignation is fully portable across any specific series of vocations, and this by itself is perhaps the most profound thing one learns by having had one in the first place.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in education, ethics, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.