I taught at a university for 30 years, from 1973 until 2002. The timing of my departure was exquisite. I left before smartphones became endemic and political correctness, with triggering and microaggressions and the rest, kicked in. The courses I taught—in Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, and in something called Advanced Prose Composition—were all electives, and so my sampling of students may have been less than comprehensive, but I liked the kids who wandered into my classes. Twenty-five or so among them have become and remain my friends.
I began teaching in my mid-thirties, had no advanced degrees, and was neither offered nor sought tenure. When I told my mother about getting this job, she replied, “That’s nice, a job in the neighborhood,” for the university was perhaps six blocks from my apartment, and we went on to talk about more important things.
“A job in the neighborhood” was exactly what my teaching turned out to be. I would go off two mornings a week, teach for three hours, and return home. University teaching was roughly a six-month job, and as such a sweet deal; a “racket” an older friend at the same university called it. Racket though it may have been, I found I never entered any class without slight trepidation. What I worried about was being boring, revealing my ignorance, failing to bring out the profundity of the writers I taught, running out of things to talk about to fill my 80-minute classes. Whether or not I was a good teacher is not for me to say. What I can say is that those who confidently think themselves good teachers probably aren’t. The teaching transaction—what goes on between teacher and student not merely in the passing along of information but in the realm of influence—remains a mystery, at least it does to me.
Just before I began teaching, student evaluations of teachers began. Of the thousands I received only two were of any value. One cited me for jiggling my change—useful because I could easily enough remedy this distraction by putting my change and keys in my briefcase. The other, more mysterious, read: “I did extremely well in this class. I would have been ashamed not to have done.” The mystery of course was what did I do to induce such splendid shame in this student? If only I had known, I would do it over and over again with other students.
Even though I had a good run, I stopped teaching without the least regret. The reason for this is that I always thought of myself as primarily a writer who was lucky to get a job teaching to help pay for my writing.
Three or so weeks ago, a former student of mine, who is teaching one of the courses I did at the same university, sent me an email informing me that he was using one of my books in his course on nonfiction writing and would be delighted if I would come in to speak to the students. My former student is now in his fifties. One’s former students do tend to grow older. I now have former students in their early sixties. My friend Edward Shils, then in his early eighties, one day told me that he had been visited by two of his former students, one 75, the other 77. “Nice boys,” Edward said.
I went into this class, as into every other I have taught, with the usual trepidation. I slept poorly the night before. I prepared some notes. Among them was a sentence that, though clear enough, contained five errors: “Hopefully, the professor will not be totally disinterested in the work on which I am presently engaged, and which, I have come to increasingly think, is rather unique.” (The students caught only one of these errors—the word unique is an absolute condition and does not admit of qualification.) We discussed what was at stake in letting such errors into one’s writing. I read a paragraph by Leo Strauss on the death of Winston Churchill and on the need “never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness,” and told them that one of the goals of a serious education is to train a person to discern the difference. They asked a number of intelligent questions about my own writing. We talked about the doleful effects of the Internet on literary writing. Something suspiciously like education seemed to be going on. I found I was enjoying myself hugely.
Two great lies about teaching are, first, that it is so wonderful one would do it for nothing and, second, that one learns so much from one’s students. Still, this brief return to the classroom reminded me that, when it is going well, teaching, like ping-pong and sex, can be a splendid indoor activity.