“Throughout history the exemplary teacher has never been just an instructor in a subject; he is nearly always its living advertisement.” — Michael Dirda, Book by Book
I leapt at this phrase when I first read it in Dirda’s spry little ‘commonplace’ notebook. It fit my Puritan work ethic and it assuaged the residual guilt that plagues most teachers. This could be the answer to that recurrent nightmare, the one where we are exposed by our students as imposters, pipelines simply carrying the information, subject to any crank that wants to interrupt the flow with a question.
Of course, the analogy to the teacher as advertisement is not without its problems. Advertisements are there solely to sell us stuff that we don’t want and certainly don’t need. Advertisements lie—that is their modus operandi—and they are almost always flogging trivial stuff like mouthwash, Doritos, and Lincoln Navigators. Advertisements clog the airwaves, occupy every visible surface, and reduce the wisdom of the world to slogans. Teachers are not advertisements.
But there’s another way to regard this. Years ago cultural critic and media theorist James W. Carey wrote a seminal essay in which he distinguished two historical views on communication. One was the transmission model in which communication functions to loft messages long distances and exercise power over others from afar. It works well when we text message our friends or fire a missile or take out an ad in the Washington Post. It is at work when we channel the textbook in our classes or lecture without regard for where the shells we lob are landing.
The other form of communication is ancient; it predates literacy and springs from the impulse to commune with others. It gathers in rather than disseminates, pulls us into a circle of stories around the fire instead of blasting the masses, and works from the inside to the outside. Symbolic, ritualized, it is the way a society defines, maintains, and sustains itself. It is thought embedded in action, the Word made flesh. The message is not simply carried in the shell of the advertisement: it is rather—to ruffle McLuhan’s hair—the message as the medium.
Thus, when we imagine ourselves professing before our classes, do we see ourselves as these exemplary sages who at the very least convey an enthusiasm for the subject that can enthrall even the back rows? Probably not, and rightly so.
The best teachers among us wear the mantle lightly. They seem innocent of it, as unconscious as breathing. When complimented they may be startled or slightly embarrassed or just a bit uncomfortable. This hints at the idea that teaching well is not a technique (from tekhne, ‘art or craft’) applied from the outside but the result over time of allowing our natural curiosity to partner with our desire for communion with others. When we tell the stories around our particular fires with enthusiasm (from en theos, ‘in god’), we transcend our egos if only for a moment. We lose the weight of being ‘the teacher’ and we truly ‘profess’ what we know and love.
This “innocence” is not something we can strive for, however. It arrives unannounced, a blessed byproduct of knowledge, love for the subject, familiarity with the process, and experience in handling groups of students. In those moments we become the embodiment of what we say, a living word. On a cold Monday morning we can be so lucky.