What do they want?

A few weeks ago, a dear friend came in town for an event. Her former students got word that she would be in town and immediately started planning that they would kidnap her for an evening, go out to dinner, go out for drinks, just hang out.

She’d been a popular teacher with a certain group, who took every course she offered, sat in on courses they weren’t even taking with her, read every book she mentioned, picked fights with her to keep her on campus, to keep her in the room, talking to them.

But now that they weren’t trying to get a grade anymore, she said, what did they want? In real life, my friend is a bit shy, hardly the kind of person who dominates a room with wall-reverberating charisma. In real life, if someone talked to her the way her students did (we need to get together i need to see you) it would mean they were about to make a violent declaration of love, or confess they’d had her love child. No one talks that way. But students do.

Tonight I went to an event at the school where I teach and invited a friend who teaches at a different school. “Are you a celebrity?” she asked. It was true; students waved from across the room, shouting my name and rushing over, their eyes bright and faces flushed. When I came in the door, I tried to show identification, but the girl manning the table just nodded knowingly. “Oh I know all about you. I’ve heard so much.” A student I hadn’t seen in a while came over to ask me, very intensely, if I had seen various movies, and how badly he needed to know what I thought of them. Also, could we start a book club, please? Something? He’d graduated, and although he loves reading, it just… hasn’t been the same.

In most of these extracurricular meetings, we all end up surprised by how little we have to say to each other. For as intensely as they’re feeling, they know almost nothing about my private life, nor I about theirs. I end up saying something dorky about the books we read together. They respond a little deflated. It wasn’t what they were expecting, not exactly. What did they expect to happen? Are they disappointed that I’m not so charming outside of the classroom?

A cynical young professor of my acquaintance, very drunk and very serious, once told me that she wanted me to know how little students get from us intellectually. “They learn to love you, your personality, whatever. They read a few books, but they don’t really get what you’re talking about. It doesn’t stay with them. They just remember how much they like you.” I, also very drunk and very serious, burst into tears, saying, over and over, “Take it back. It’s not true. Take it back.”

I have not become that cynical. I do think they get something out of it, and even if it’s not the thing I thought I was teaching, at least they have a few more methodological tools. I try to use my powers, such as they are, for good, making a memorable joke out of a bad scholarly habit or being really actively interested in their best ideas. Even if all they want from me is cookies, I’ll give them cookies so they’ll remember what they got them for. It can’t be all bad, right?

One thing they don’t want, w/r/t my friend’s wonderment above, is to fuck you. I didn’t discover that behind the desk, thank God, but in front of it, as an undergrad who was totally besotted with every professor who looked right at me. I remember that feeling with absolute clarity–that directionless Teacherlust that knows not what it wants. I must have made a spectacle of myself, trying desperately to get attention, approval, something. I played it cool sometimes, or pretended not to care, but inside I burned for them to notice me. I often thought I must be in love. It felt like love.

And then one of them, very suddenly and bafflingly, propositioned me. I was in his office, thinking, at that very moment how badly I wanted something to happen. And when it was offered, I knew I wanted nothing less.

Since then, I’ve known that, whatever students may feel they want to happen, it’s the wanting that makes it work, not the happening. Suddenly you find yourself in college, facing someone who may really actually listen to what you have to say for the first time in your life. Your parents may not listen, your friends don’t listen, your lovers don’t listen. But your professors sometimes do.

Those of us who love our jobs love coming to class every day and hearing fresh, optimistic young people say things about literature that we’ve never heard before. Our colleagues rarely surprise us, and even our own friends and lovers are rarely thrilled to be treated to a half-hour lecture about poetry. Students laugh at our jokes, are happy to see us, and remember what we say. When we give them encouragement or give advice on papers, they take them home and read them over and over like love-letters. Unlike in real life, the classroom is a place where we are allowed to be kind and thoughtful to one another, and it can feel marvelous for all of us. We feel heard, and seen, like we’re real.

And then the semester ends. The effect fades. When it doesn’t, what happens to that feeling? When you find out your teacher is actually living a lonely loveless life, with few comforts other than the books you read together, what can you do? What do you want to happen?

I wonder if the only thing that can happen is that you remember what that felt like, being heard and really listening, and you try to recreate it in your life. You desperately try to find a lover who hears you, friends who hear you, people who say things worth hearing. It’s harder to do than you might think. There’s a reason some of your favorite professors go home to empty houses.

9 responses to “What do they want?”

  1. CharleyCarp says:

    I’m just guessing, but I would think what they want is for you is discourse, at the same level of intensity and familiarity, and in your charismatic affect, about Avatar, some new book they’ve read, some band they’ve seen, some life they’ve lived, as they’ve had from you over Paradise Lost, Blake, or your other subject matter. It’s deflating to find that the brilliant person whose grasp of life through BritLit they so admire doesn’t brim in the same way with insights drawn from any random subject matter.

    Then it’s deflating to realize how foolish it is to be deflated by that: like being disappointed to learn that Derek Jeter isn’t as good at football, soccer, curling, giant slalom, whatever he’s presented with at some moment.

    Maybe more than the thrill of being listened to, there’s a thrill of insight. They don’t have to remember what exactly the insight was, just that the story which might seem to mean one thing on the surface has a whole other world, accessible with a proper guide. People love their ski instructors too.

  2. Dave says:

    There’s this thing we all do, that when something is really great we want it to stick around, or when it goes away we want it back. For normal friendships or communities, this dynamic can be constructive — you have some good times with someone, the good times end, but then you see the person again and hey, you’ve at least got those good times to build on. Lather, rinse, repeat, and you’ve got the potential for a lifelong friendship (with “good times” here being not just happy-fun times but all the variegated kinds of moments of a friendship).

    But in a teaching and learning situation, you’re brought together for a limited time for a specific purpose. The interpersonal awesomeness that can arise as everyone works through Paradise Lost is a product of the working-together that facilitates more learning. But the semester ends, people disperse, and then you see your teacher again and … what? You can’t reconstitute the temporary community that was the site of the “thrill of insight.” And maybe that intensity of community could only exist because it was always going to be temporary and suspended in the “wanting” state that AWB describes.

  3. Ivy says:

    The same happens with a therapist. I find it weird, always have, that I don’t know my therapist the way she does me. But then it can be marvellous being a conversation piggy the way one couldn’t with a nicely functioning friendship. I’m allowed, for an hour a week, to talk about myself with no concerns. Except that I do think about it. But since my therapy wraps up for good in two weeks, we were talking yesterday about how odd that imbalance is, and exactly what you describe: that I haven’t ever needed to see my therapist as anything less than the perfect provider of what she gives to me. and that is deeply weird. Although once, as I left, I heard her yell at her daughter’s dog (quite reasonably, I might add), and I remember thinking, “Eeeek, scary Mummy…” (dog-mummy, I might add, not mine) and it shifted that perspective a bit. Teachers aren’t quite human, they are sort of fake superhuman and it is wonderful and freaky at the same time. but it is a good part of growing up to realise that everyone is human and frankly, disappointing some of the time. because maybe it makes it okay to BE disappointing ourselves. I’m working on accepting it, anyway.

  4. trixie says:

    Suspended in that “wanting” state reminded me of this:
    Sorry if the reference offends any of the philosophers out there…

    …Christopher Robin has just asked Pooh a question: “What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?” “Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best–” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.

    -Benjamin Hoff from The Tao of Pooh

  5. A White Bear says:

    Ivy, I like that comparison with therapists, in part because the therapeutic interaction is so similar to good teaching, in the sense that someone is being paid to pay really close attention to you, and because it’s their job, they do it freakishly well. I don’t know what my therapist is like outside her office; I’m sure she’s a good mom, a caring wife, smart, has a good sense of humor. I don’t fantasize about us being friends, but I guess I do imagine we’d like each other IRL. OTOH, it would still be weird to see her outside. Would she think as well of me as she seems to when she tells me that she thinks I’m brilliant and deserving of love? Would I think as well of her?

    I guess it seems like all these relationships have the potential to transfer a lot of anxiety about the failures of parental love, which also has no consummation. It’s hard to leave the classroom or the therapist’s office and not think, why don’t my parents, who claim to love me, listen to me that way? Or, why don’t my friends and lovers care about what I’m talking about the way they do? Is it really just that they’re not professionals? They’re not being paid to care about you, and most people don’t have much practice at it?

  6. swells says:

    AWB, your posts on the psychology of teaching reeeeeeeeeeeally speak to me (and I’ve read several of them, including on your own site). I am so so glad to have you here at TGW because you articulate the central activity in my life so much better than I possibly could. thank you so much for this.

    trixie: re pooh: it’s the classic “ode on a grecian urn” scenario! only cuter. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter . . . or, on the flip side, Stevens:
    I do not know which to prefer,
    The beauty of inflections
    Or the beauty of innuendoes,
    The blackbird whistling
    Or just after.

    and back to the urn, how the moment right before the kiss is so much better than any actual kiss could ever be. See also the Great Gatsby. See also real life.

  7. Rogan says:

    Hey AWB, great post! You sure captured some of the strange intimacy I feel with my own students (and in case any of you are reading this, not the sexual kind of intimacy, you sickos!). I find myself caring about my them so much, and wanting for them to find their way through these troubled times. What a strange profession, that creates these unique relationships.

  8. Dave says:

    Yeah, the teaching/therapy thing. The analytical term for what we’re talking about, of course, is transference.

    One thing the post made me think of in this connection is how therapists speak of transference (from the client onto the therapist) and countertransference (from the therapist onto the client). I understand that therapists are trained to recognize and deal with countertransference so it doesn’t interfere with the therapeutic process (and in fact can aid the process). In my experience, teachers at the college level aren’t trained to deal with this at all (since they’re hardly trained at all).

    AWB’s accounts of teaching are great in part because they deal with these issues in a really finely grained way. I liked how this piece drew the unsettling parallel between the “wanting to be heard and feeling you are finally being heard” of the student and of the teacher, with the student as a kind of naive participant in the transference and the teacher, because she goes through this again and again, as the experienced and maybe tragic party in this dynamic.

  9. E&R's Papa says:

    Lawyers are also like twisted therapists, facilitating obsessions and sometimes becoming objects of obsession. And of course we get obsessed too. (And then the case suddenly ends like the semester.) Right now I’m involved in a hideous divorce case where the ex husband almost ended up in jail for contempt last week; some of his lawyers have jumped ship like rats, and others seem to be going down with him.