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Occasional Paper Series

Occasional Paper Series No. 1

A Teacher’s Attention

by Stephen B. Cushman, Department of English, University of Virginia


This paper, the first in a series of occasional papers published by the Teaching Resource Center, was written and delivered by Stephen B. Cushman at the University of Virginia’s Alumni Council and Emeritus Society on March 31, 1995. Mr. Cushman is a professor in the English Department at the University of Virginia where he teaches American and modern literature, especially poetry. His expertise and enthusiasm for teaching undergraduates and mentoring colleagues have earned him the All University Teaching Award. He is currently the University of Virginia’s Richard A. and Sara Page Mayo Distinguished Teaching Professor, the first of these endowed chairs funded by a Special Challenge Grant for the National Endowment of the Humanities.

©1995, by the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia. All rights reserved.

A speech delivered at the Alumni Council and Emeritus Society, March 31, 1995

Most of the time that I spend talking with people in settings like this one I spend talking with them about American literature. Often we talk about American poetry. In the last two years, we’ve been talking a good bit about ways to represent the American Civil War, both in writing and in other media such as photography or film. Meanwhile, although I’ve been teaching at the University of Virginia for thirteen years, I get to spend almost no time talking with people like you about the teaching itself, about how it works and what it means. When Dean Nelson offered me the chance to choose my own topic, I decided to put aside what I teach in order to think more carefully about how I teach.

Tonight I’m going to talk about something I’m calling “A Teacher’s Attention,” and I want to begin by making explicit two assumptions that shape my remarks. The first is that for the last five years higher education has found itself on the defensive, both in the Commonwealth of Virginia and in the country at large. Since 1990 many people have called on American universities to justify themselves and their workings. In particular, various people, some sympathetic, some unsympathetic, some informed, some uninformed, have asked us to explain what appears to them to be the relatively small amount of time we spend in classroom teaching. I would include the members of this audience among the sympathetic and informed, but I would also bet that each of you knows someone unsympathetic and uninformed, someone to whom you might like to respond more forcefully the next time you tangle in an argument. I hope that some of my remarks will be useful to you on that occasion.

My second assumption is that there must be more to teaching than the number of hours spent in front of a classroom. I make this assumption based on careful observation of my fifty five colleagues in the English Department. Each year I enjoy how healthy and happy they look in September, and each year I wince at how haggard and hollow eyed they look in May. Since each of them teaches an average of only five hours a week, we must reach one of two conclusions: Either my colleagues are all weaklings, or teaching must entail more than punching a timeclock. Again my own observation forces me to rule out the first conclusion. Among my colleagues are those who are more than equal to the regular rigors of basketball, squash, running, rowing, bicycling, swimming, hiking, weight lifting, Nordic track, tennis, and touch football. Furthermore, many of these same colleagues also manage to meet the relentless demands of raising children, a favorite theme of mine, as you will soon see. To people in good physical shape who are already functioning at the high rate of efficiency parenthood demands, a handful of hours every week in front of a classroom should pose no problem.

So we are left with the conclusion that teaching entails more than punching a timeclock. Or to state this conclusion differently, those who try to assess what teachers do only with respect to the quantity of hours spent teaching have already made a mistake. Mind you, I’m not afraid of examining the number of hours I spend working at my job, but fortunately I don’t have to perform that labor here, since it’s already been done by Professor Edward Ayers of the History Department in a wonderful piece entitled “What Does a Professor Do All Day, Anyway?” (Inside UVA [Dec. 10, 1993]). As Ed makes clear in that piece, and as other surveys have confirmed, a faculty member spends an average of better than fifty hours a week doing work other than his or her own research: teaching, preparing to teach, talking with students in office hours, reading and answering electronic messages sent by students and colleagues, writing letters of recommendation, reading student papers, serving on committees, examining graduate students for their comprehensive exams, supervising independent projects, directing dissertations, and giving talks like this one.

But for me even to remind you or your unsympathetic, uninformed acquaintance of these facts is for me also to go on the defensive. If all I do here tonight is add up the hours on my timecard, then I’ve acknowledged implicitly that that total, that quantity of hours, is what matters most. And it isn’t. So let me now quit the defensive and go on the offensive with this statement, which I’ll spend the rest of my time exploring: Yes, a teacher puts in a respectable quantity of hours each week, but what matters most is the uncommonly high quality of those hours, a quality that depends wholly on what I’m calling a teacher’s attention. If you can begin to appreciate the quality of the hours my colleagues put in, then you can begin to solve the annual mystery of their haggard looks and hollow eyes.

I don’t need to tell you that not all hours are created equal. For example, I’ve been told to talk to you for about twenty minutes this evening. Although I understand that to you these twenty minutes may feel interminable, especially after a large meal and a little wine, to me or anyone who is used to speaking publicly, they represent a relatively short time. But twenty minutes make for a long time to be in excruciating physical pain or in unmitigated terror. And it’s way too long a time to hold your breath. Or to borrow an example from parenthood, anyone who has ever spent eight consecutive hours trying to keep a toddler from somersaulting downstairs, chugging dishwashing soap, or mouthing an electrical outlet knows full well how different those eight hours are from the ones in a work day that includes coffee breaks and a lunch hour, not to mention association with people who need no help going to the bathroom.

We show that we understand these differences in the ways that hours can pass when we allow into our language the unfortunate expression “quality time,” a phrase we use most often, sadly enough, to describe how we intend to make up to our families for the fact that we spend too many hours away from them altogether and too many hours with them when we’re distracted by other obligations. Of course, implicit in the use of this phrase is a belief that in the long run some hours mean more than others. And they do. But what does all this chat have to do with teaching and a teacher’s attention, you want to know. Well, let’s see. [Here an embarrassing silence of fifteen seconds.]

That was fifteen seconds. If I were sitting where you are, these are some of the thoughts that would have been racing around my head during such an uncomfortable silence: Uh oh, what’s happening here? Poor guy, he’s lost his place. Is he O.K.? We were having such a pleasant time and now it’s going to be ruined by a scene. Is my C.P.R. certification still valid? When should I dial 911? If I were sitting where you are, my fight or flight response would have kicked in; my heart would start pumping faster; my face would flush; I might try to make reassuring eye contact with someone sitting near me; or I might stare in confusion at my lap, avoiding all eye contact.

If any of these questions flickered through your brain or sensations through your body, congratulations. You have just survived a simulation of what it feels like to be a teacher in a classroom at a moment when the unpredictable, the unknown, or the unfamiliar breaks in upon classroom routine. It’s exactly this kind of moment that I hope and work for in every class I teach. And although I don’t want to speak for them, and although I acknowledge that each of them might describe this kind of moment very differently, I suspect it’s also the kind of moment for which my most of my colleagues hope and work in their classrooms.

But let’s face it. In my quest for such moments, I fail to find them nearly all of the time. And it’s a good thing I do, I suppose, since fifty or seventy five solid minutes of these moments would leave me feeling too depleted to get replenished again for the following class the day after tomorrow. In fact, if my two and a half hour seminars consisted of nothing but a continuous string of such moments, by the end of a class I would feel electrocuted and need to be carried out on a stretcher. Nevertheless, these are the moments I watch for like a sentinel, and it’s this vigilant scanning for opportunity, as though one were always on duty at the masthead of a whaleship, that is a large part of what I mean by the title “A Teacher’s Attention.”

Opportunity for what? What is it for which one is so vigilantly scanning? For so many things. For example, I might be teaching a poem I’ve read and taught a hundred times, watching closely to see if this time through, in this particular classroom, with this fresh group of students, a familiar word or phrase or line or stanza will suddenly reveal itself more fully than it ever has. Or I might find myself once again in class with a student or students who for the last few meetings have appeared disengaged, distracted, bored, or frustrated. Suddenly, a slight change in facial expression, a furrowing of the brow or widening of the eyes, signals the stirring of interest or understanding, interest or understanding that then needs to be fanned vigorously with a direct question or comment. Or once again my students and I may find ourselves falling into the old habits and expectations we have all come to know so well after years in classrooms, habits and expectations that make us feel as though nothing authentic or memorable can happen in the familiar routine of teachers asking questions that students are supposed to answer. Then, without warning, one student tosses in a casual comment that seems to come out of nowhere, a comment that another student echoes and another and another. Is this new twist in the conversation a digression? Are we wasting precious time? Will it lead us anywhere we want to go or need to go? Search me. I’ve never been down this path before. I’m not quite sure I know what’s happening. I’m not sure I know how to fill the silences that arise. I’m not sure I should fill the silences. Don’t look now, but here comes the unpredictable.

In other words, what makes teaching both stimulating and exhausting for someone who cherishes the unpredictable is that his or her attention is never, never off duty. The moment the attention checks out, opportunities pass by unnoticed, and both the teacher and the students may find themselves going unmindfully through the motions. Fair enough, you say, but all this vigilance you talk about still takes up only five hours of a teacher’s week. Ah, but that’s not true. When I read a poem for class or read an essay a student has written, my attention is on full alert. If it isn’t, I get to the bottom of a page, don’t know what I’ve read, and have to go back to the beginning. Furthermore, I’ve missed all the signs of what’s stirring beneath the surface of the writing I’m reading, either something important an author is leaving powerfully unsaid or something important a student doesn’t quite yet know how to say. When I meet with students in my office hours, I can be of no use to them if I don’t listen carefully, and I can’t listen carefully if I don’t pay close attention, both to what’s said and what’s not said. When I write a recommendation, if I’m not attentive, I lapse into the conventional formulas and clichés that will make that recommendation sound like any other in a rejection pile. In fact, when I look over a week and reckon up the number of hours I can afford to relax my attention, let my mind wander, daydream a little, put myself on automatic pilot, I come up with only two or three, and those hours come most often during committee meetings, unless I happen to be chairing the committee, in which case my attention has to go right back on full alert.

Perhaps now the annual mystery of the haggard looks and hollow eyes begins to clear itself up. Nine months make for a long time a very long time to be on full alert. I’m not saying that teachers are the only people who have to pay this kind of full time attention. I would hope, for example, that air traffic controllers pay this kind of attention, too. But I am saying that teaching does not fall into the same category of labor as pot-washing (I choose this example because it helped put me through college), labor that may tire the body but leaves the attention largely free to amuse itself. You can be an excellent pot washer without giving your pot washing a serious thought, but you can’t teach effectively without attending to that teaching constantly.

This attentiveness makes a teacher’s hours more than adequate; it makes them rare and precious. Speaking now as a parent with two young children to educate, young children I want to receive the same unwavering attention that I give to other people’s children, I fear that many of the so called reforms that budget cuts may force on higher education will end up endangering the attentive quality of those hours. Still on the offensive, let me move toward closing by pointing out three fallacies I hope that you, in turn, will point out to your uninformed, unsympathetic acquaintances the next time you argue about whether or not to support higher education: (1) The Cheaper ls Better Fallacy; (2) The Bigger And More Fallacy; and (3) The Technology Will Save Us Fallacy.

The first fallacy, the Cheaper ls Better Fallacy, usually runs something like this: If we quit putting money into higher education, we’ll force colleges and universities to find cheaper ways of operating, ways that in turn will produce leaner, meaner institutions, and these leaner, meaner institutions will be better. Those who argue this way apparently think of colleges and universities as though they were automobile engines that can be made to get more miles to the gallon. I have no problem with this argument when it comes to matters like not air conditioning classroom buildings twenty four hours a day during the height of the summer. But I have a big problem with it when it comes to, say, cutting back on the range of courses a department can make available to its students. For example, my own field, American literature, is expanding at a rate that would give the speed of light a run for its money. As the demographic make up of the student population shifts to reflect the surge in immigration the United States has been undergoing since 1965, we need to be paying serious attention to developing and offering new courses in both Asian American and Hispanic writing. Furthermore, we need to develop and offer these courses not instead of, but in addition to, our courses on, say, Emerson, Poe, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson. Nevertheless, at this very moment, when we need to be hiring attentively, we stand face to face with a hiring freeze imposed by the governor. So we say to ourselves, Well, we can’t afford to pay attention to the profound shifts we anticipate. We’ll just have to do without. In this case, one cannot defend the position that cheaper is better. Here cheaper is only cheaper, and you get what you pay for.

The second fallacy, the Bigger And More Fallacy, has to do specifically with classroom teaching and usually goes this way: If you were really committed to teaching, you’d teach bigger classes and more of them. I can’t tell you what people who argue this way are thinking, since I am not convinced they’re thinking at all. To me this argument makes just as much sense as saying: If you were really committed to raising children, you’d have ten instead of two. Parents of large families I know all admit that after child number three or four comes along, they have to rely on the older children to help raise the younger. And, of course, that’s just what happens in big courses: Teachers have to rely on graduate students to teach sections and grade papers or exams. When I taught two hundred students in a course, I didn’t read a single paper written by a student. I couldn’t, since I spent all my extra time teaching my graduate students how to grade. The students who took that course got very little of my attention. As for the argument that a real teacher should prove his or her commitment to teaching by teaching more, though not necessarily bigger, classes, I can tell you from my own experience that when I had an additional course to teach in a term, there was always one course I had to shortchange on my attention. When I think about justifying to myself the amount of money I’m going to have to spend on my kids’ education in the classes of 2009 and 2013, I feel much more confident that I’d be getting my money’s worth from an institution in which faculty members could focus their attention more closely on four courses a year than I would from one that spreads each teacher thinly over six or eight courses a year.

The third fallacy, the Technology Will Save Us Fallacy, is a tough one to treat adequately in the small amount of your time I still have coming to me. I’ve written about it at greater length in a piece that will come out this summer [“Make New Professors But Keep the Old,” New Literary History 26, 3 (Summer 1995)], so I’ll just summarize here. Technology can perform amazing feats, and in many areas I’m grateful for it. For example, I can sit in my office and search the library quickly and efficiently for materials relating to poems written by Civil War soldiers, and I can have my students do the same. But technology also enforces our isolation and remoteness from one another. I can get money from a cash machine and never speak directly to a teller. An answering machine on my telephone means that I never have to speak directly to anyone who calls me. Electronic mail means that I have to see fewer people face to face, so that, for instance, I can conduct committee business without having to try to figure out what hour of the week twelve people have free to meet. I happen to like these conveniences, but when it comes to teaching, I see no substitute for paying attention to texts, to ideas, and to each other in real time in a real classroom. Sure, I can reach more students in more places if I’m teaching them by means of a computer, but at least in my field it is the social experience of the classroom that complements and balances the individual experience of reading, thinking, and writing in solitude. It is the social experience of the classroom that both enables us, and in some cases forces us, to pay attention to one another and to cooperate with one another. As any four year old can demonstrate, we are not born knowing how to cooperate with one another right here, right now. Cooperation is a skill, if not an art, that has to be learned, and virtual cooperation in cyberspace is no substitute for the kind of attentive, face to face cooperation we in America badly need everywhere, both inside the university and out. When I think about paying to educate children, I don’t think happily of them doing nothing but sitting before computer terminals. Instead, I think about them learning from and adapting to the presence of other people, among whom we all have to live and move and have our being.

You’ve been very good to pay the kind of attention to me this evening that I try to pay elsewhere. But if you remember nothing else I’ve said the next time you’re in an argument about the value of supporting higher education, just remember this version of the old saying: Those who can, teach; those who can’t, have to find work elsewhere. Thanks very much.