Teaching is like sex

A million things to write, most of them still inchoate. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more articles about critical pedagogy and one of them is by Jane Tompkins. “Pedagogy of the Distressed,” it’s called, in College English from 1990. She comments at one point on her long inattention to her own pedagogy, and on what she views as academia’s distaste for education as a discipline:

“In this respect teaching was exactly like sex for me — something that you weren’t supposed to talk about or focus on in any way but that you were supposed to be able to do properly when the time came. And the analogy doesn’t end there. Teaching, like sex, is something you do alone, although you’re always with another person/other people when you do it; it’s hard to talk about to the other person while you’re doing it, especially if you’ve been taught not to think about it from an early age. And people rarely talk about what the experience is really like for them, partly because, in whatever subculture it is I belong to, there’s no vocabulary for articulating the experience and no institutionalized format for doing so.”

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Academic despotism, praised in iambic tetrameter

Department Head

“His kingdom isn’t large, but still
He rules it with a royal will
And, as his colleagues sometimes moan,
Needs but a scepter and a throne.
Part teacher only, he’s between
A full professor and a dean.
More like a congressman, by rights,
He represents his field and fights
For added space and extra books,
More office space and shelves and hooks.
He counts his majors, keenly knowing
He has to make a stronger showing
Or (how his loyal heart is torn)
His budget will be sadly shorn.
Above his colleagues quite a distance,
He has a phone and two assistants
And teaches what he wants and when
And takes a day off now and then.
The students all are scared to death,
The new instructor holds his breath,
The others envy, hate, admire,
And try to guess when he’ll retire.”

-Richard Armour, 1956, College English 17(8):450. (There are other examples of this doggerel out there too.)

Let me just note that it’s interesting that the three themes of this poem are: the structure of departmental power (somewhere between monarchy and legislative bargaining); the budget and material supplies (down to the shelves and hooks); and the chair’s affective relations with colleagues and students (envy, fear, suspense, admiration…).