September 13, 2023

SCHWARZ | The Function of the University Classroom

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“It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.”

I wish to discuss what University professors do other than engaging in research and conveying crucial information. In the midst of my 56th year since arriving at Cornell I continue to reflect on my teaching goals and to savor the joy I take in teaching.

If career preparation is the daily prose of the University, then the poetry is what happens when teachers and students join in the pursuit of knowledge, working collaboratively to create communities of inquiry in which we learn together, muster evidence and respond to the ideas of others with respect. 

As teachers and mentors, whether in STEM, social sciences or humanities, we can share with students the ideal of learning for its own sake, the pleasure of reading and knowing and the necessity of continually questioning accepted truths, including those propounded by us teachers. Whatever our fields, we can share a sense of wonder and discovery with our students.

As a humanist, I want my classroom to be a site where 1) we have a common sense of purpose; 2) the work we are discussing says  something crucial to every student, even as it arouses wonderment in response to its artistry and 3) my students share with me the expectation that we will fulfill the possibility of learning together. 

As the term progresses, the students in a successful class commit to not only the material and the teacher, but to each other, and the class becomes an intellectual community. Clearly this is easier in small classes, but I have seen it happen to a degree even in classes of 70 or 80 or more. 

Teaching is a collaborative activity in so many ways. I tell my students I can do my part to make our class a memorable experience, but I cannot do it alone. Each meeting of a course matters not because it will necessarily help students earn more money, but because learning is an end in itself. Yes, I know students have practical goals and I respect that, but we aim to make our classes oases where other values, especially the pursuit of knowledge, prevail. 

Teaching is an art not a science. The essence of teaching is opening doors and windows to opportunity. Effective teaching means helping to create in students our own driving curiosity and our own pleasure in learning. Our roles as teachers are to nourish our students’ minds so that they are prepared for whatever is their next step after college, whether it be further studies or an immediate launch of their work life.

If we can teach our students to think critically, to read complex and nuanced texts, to propose an argument based on evidence (which is crucial not only to STEM but all fields), to synthesize what they are learning, to write lucidly and precisely while holding in their minds several ideas at once and to speak articulately, we will have accomplished a great deal.  If we teach our students to listen carefully and respectfully to the ideas of others, and to appreciate the views of others who may be from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, we will have done even more. Teaching students how to take part respectfully in the give-and-take of informed discussion is to create citizens who sustain democracy and contribute to our communities.   

Inspiring teachers shape their students, perhaps most by opening the door to future learning in terms of encouraging reading, curiosity and awareness of the world. Helping students realize their potential and not only achieve their immediate goals, but also set lofty goals for the future should be our teaching goal. Our role is helping to transform possibility into actuality, while giving students the confidence to do more than they think they can do. Important, too, is knowing that sometimes the best five words you can say to a student are, “I am here for you.”

I have never taught a class at Cornell where I did not learn from the insights of students, more and more of whom come from different backgrounds and countries.  Students keep me on the pulse of social change and aware of campus issues. I have taught many of the major editors of The Cornell Daily Sun, and they have heightened my awareness of what is happening on campus. 

One crucial aspect of good teaching is listening. Efficacy as a teacher is enhanced by interest in students and their knowing we  respect what they say, how they feel and what they care about. Empathy and sympathy matter when students are having troubles and frustrations. We need to try to hear what students are saying, and sometimes what they are saying requires interpreting because they may be speaking obliquely.  I should add that I don’t pretend to be a psychotherapist, and when I think a student needs help, I refer her or him to those who are professionals.

Let me turn to my own field. As a professor of English, my focus is on teaching literature. Among other things, I want to convey what serious literature does: 1) It takes us into the worlds of others, including different times and places; 2) It exposes us to dialogues among characters that reveal different perspectives; 3) It teaches us how to love and respect words; 4) It pushes us to think about how we would respond to ethical quandaries.

When we begin reading an imaginative work we are sealed off from the rest of the world. Whether reading fiction, poetry or drama we enter a created world with its own geography, temporality and history as well as its cultural assumptions about how people should behave.

It is not too much to say that a kind of genesis takes place; that is, if the work is effective, readers are transported to a new world with its own cosmology invented by the author. That imagined world is sustained through the ending when the process of reading culminates in an apocalyptic moment that reorders what precedes.  To describe our journey through a work towards the final destination in the form of its ending, we might think of  reading as an odyssey. 

We return to the tick-tock of passing time that counts our days, defines our responsibilities, and places us back in our present historical moment. Yet losing ourselves in the words images and sounds of artists affirms the immortality of art and the human spirit. Thus Homer, Shakespeare, Joyce, Picasso and Mozart live and breathe in their creations. And we share their immortality. 

With universities and libraries under attack, I believe that as humanists we have the responsibility to look beyond the academy and take part in larger discussions about what we read and how and why we read. In this politically charged country, we need to be stakeholders in public discussions about the role of the humanities and to argue for the role of imaginative literature and other art forms in transforming our minds. We need to articulate why the study of literature matters. We need to engage larger audiences beyond the specialists who do what we do, and perhaps ourselves learn from that engagement. 

As a teacher I keep in mind Emerson’s great essay “The American Scholar.” For him The American Scholar needs be “Man [and Women] Thinking”— thinking as an active and creative power of mind — rather than “a mere thinker, or worse yet the parrot of other’s people’s thinking.” What he meant is that a Woman or a Man thinking has an obligation “to see the world clearly, not severely influenced by traditional/historical views and to broaden understanding of the world from fresh eyes and not to defer to the popular cry.” These qualities of vision, I submit, are the qualities for which we as teachers and students must strive. 

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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