A Whimsical Jackass

It's What We Do

Several years ago I read a fairly obscure but very thoughtful book about teaching by the novelist and poet Jesse Ball. The book is called Notes On My Dunce Cap, and is a slim volume and thus a quick read. Jesse teaches courses at the Art Institute of Chicago, and has this to say about teaching:

You should give as much as you can, keeping in mind that you will give and be disdained and misunderstood for years on end, perhaps for the entirety of your career. You will be thought stupid. You will be understood by the entire class as a whimsical jackass. But on some days, the tide may turn, and then one is helped, and another is helped. Depending on the students, it may be possible to create a small and separate cosmos - a joyful laboratory. Then you need to do very little as a teacher, because everyone is busy learning from each other.

What a beautiful description of the goal of good teaching! To create a “small and separate cosmos - a joyful laboratory.” Where “one student is helped, and another is helped,” and then they are “busy learning from each other.”

But I am sure you noticed what precedes this beautiful description. That we must give and be disdained, “misunderstood for years on end.” Thought to be “stupid,” and a “whimsical jackass.” Is this required to create the joyful laboratory?

I think it probably is, for primarily three reasons: 1) Good teaching is not a popularity contest, 2) What we do is not always obvious at the time we are doing it, and 3) We have to keep the classroom as lively as we can.

First, teaching is not a popularity contest. When we try to be “friends” with our students, we make a mistake. When we try to be the popular teacher, we make a mistake. Sometimes we have to make hard decisions, and tell students hard things that are important to their learning. Ultimately, students understand this, and if we are honest and fair, they (mostly) respect it. But they might think us a jackass too.

Second, as I have made clear already in these newsletters, I believe in a hybrid, multi-modal form of teaching. Doing the opposite of that - the same thing in every class - is a recipe for boredom and student disengagement. But it does have the advantage of students knowing what they are doing at all times. And it is generally less cognitively challenging, so (some) students appreciate that about it as well. Because the multi-modal class is more challenging, and the purpose of everything we are doing is not necessarily clear in the moment, we have to be willing to look like a jackass.

Third, not only should the class activities be multi-modal, but we have to be multi-modal. That is, we have to be surprising and try different things to maintain interest in what is being taught. Many teachers do this by bringing examples into class. It’s spider day! It’s student teaching day! It’s silly tie day! Everyone gets a donut! It should not be clown school all day every day, but breaking up the monotony in a relevant way can help make a lesson more memorable. But to do this - even occasionally - one has to be willing to look like a jackass.

So, what are your thoughts about Jesse Ball’s quote? When have you been willing to be considered a “whimsical jackass” in front of your students?


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Letters of Recommendation

Obviously, this week I am recommending that you read the short and thoughtful book cited here, Notes on My Duncecap, by Jesse Bell. But I would recommend finding it in a library, as it had such a short press run that Amazon is selling it for almost $200!


Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is another great Quote from the same book:

It is a great comfort to learn to use silence in pedagogy. Figuring out the difference between when a quiet class is thinking and when they have given up and are just waiting for the next thing, is a difficult skill. I’m sure no one gets it quite right. But as a general rule people tend to call a halt to silence too early.