Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I Heart My Students

I just got my copies of last term's evaluations and I find that they are considerably better than they should be (they are glowing, in fact). It has left me wondering what I'd done that biased things so far in that direction. I tend to be the sort of instructor that students either hate or love, which means my evaluations are always fairly good; students who hate me tend to withdraw from the class long before evaluation time. But that bias really doesn't account for evaluations in which most of the students say that I am always organized in my lectures. This is straightforwardly false (and I had a few complaints on it even toward the end of the course), and it's very suspicious to have such obviously false positive evaluations. While I have particular ideas I want to address in each lecture, the lectures themselves are always impromptu and rambling. I like it that way, and I think it's a style that works well with the course as I've designed, and I wouldn't ever be likely to change it; but it should be costing me something on that particular issue.

But after thinking it out, I'm pretty sure that it's not really about me, although, again, the drop factor probably benefits me more than it does most professors. It would be nice if it were about me, of course; but so very few things in the universe, or even in my life, really are, and I don't think this is an exception. I think instead, and although the written comments are mostly vague, one or two of them bear this out, that I don't just teach philosophy, I try to teach the romance of it, and I think it both surprises people, who find suddenly that philosophy has something to do with all the things they like best about themselves, and intrigues them, precisely because there is so much romance to it: Socrates taking the hemlock, Boethius writing brilliant literature under house arrest after everything has been taken from him, knowing full well that he might be put to death, Descartes setting out to re-think the world, Aristotle inventing fields of inquiry almost wholesale*, feminist philosophers trying to build a more just society: this is exciting material in its own right. Teach it and people will be excited.

In any case, reading some of the student evaluations, I have to say I love my students, some of whom show even in writing evaluations that they have a sense of humor. I'd love them even if they blasted me in evaluations, because they really were fun to teach, even the section last term that drove me crazy practically every class. It doesn't hurt that many of them thought the classes fun, too. And it's a nice omen for this term, since I had my first classes today, especially since they all went better than my first days usually do. (I'm always a wreck the first day.) So far my students this term look like they'll be fun, too. Everything's coming up cherries.
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* There's a really good passage in Lucian's "Sale of the Philosophers," if I recall correctly, which goes through and mocks all the major philosophical schools of his time, and part of the auctioneer's pitch when trying to sell Aristotle (who finally gets one of the higher prices at the sale) is that Aristotle has the advantage of knowing everything. And while it wears better heard than read, I once attended a paper where the author cracked everyone up by saying that Aristotle started his week by making physics more rigorous, but, quickly getting tired of it, went on Tuesday to write some of the most brilliant words of dramatic criticism, then, on Wednesday, collected and catalogued all the constitutions of Greece, and then, deciding that that was too mundane, wrote metaphysics on Thursday, then remembered on Friday that he had promised Nichomachus something before the end of the week, so wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, and finally decided to relax on Saturday by writing all the logical works. He's not quite that brilliant, but Aristotle really is so brilliant as to be funny.

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