When I went to college back in the Dim Ages (the 1970s), a mobile device was a bicycle, a text was a book you bought, blackboard was what it sounded like (not an “electronic education platform”), and students wanted an education—a good, solid partner for life. What seems wanted now, however, is edutainment—a metaphorical prostitute, a paid-for good time to be discarded as soon as the moment of pleasure is over.
When I was hired to teach at WCU, I already had 25 years experience teaching college English, so I didn’t exactly look forward to the day of orientation week devoted to improving our teaching skills. Our first session began early in the morning. A veteran history teacher and one of her students huddled at a front corner of the classroom behind the technology-intensive “teacher’s station.” After we were exhorted to take our teaching from “ordinary to extraordinary,” our mentors began blaring Edwin Starr’s song “War,” then tied men’s neckties around their heads and began head-banging their heads in rhythm to the music. As they danced around, I thought, “What is this good for? Absolutely nothing.” Our session leader asserted that this would be one way to have an exciting beginning to a class on the history of war. I did admire the performance, but at the same time, I knew I would never expend this much energy or take this big of a risk. If I were willing to make that big of a fool of myself, I would’ve stayed in university administration. Acting like that in front of a class of sharkish freshmen would be like chunking chum into the water and then jumping in myself.
I’m proud to say that in my thirty-year career I never caved in to students with deficient motivation nor to administrators who constantly pressured me to make learning “fun.” My professors had never sung, danced, or otherwise performed for me, and by golly I turned out all right.
Now, I suppose I should confess that in a moment of weakness, for a class on Walt Whitman’s poetry, I did once (OK, twenty times) prepare an empty Whitman’s Sampler candy box with quotations from Whitman, called these quotations “Whitman samples,” and invited each student to pick one and to read it out to the class as a fortune-cookie-like insight into that particular student’s nature. Some samples of what they read out to their peers:
—What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest is Me.
—The scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer.
—Welcome is every organ and attribute of me.
—I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.
—Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
It is with shame that I tell you some students laughed and most seemed to enjoy this wicked stunt, this blatant pandering, this regrettable grandstanding.
At least I never stooped to putting on a theatrical performance for my class. Now, I did several times bring a 5-gallon jug into class and act tipsy while a student read the poem “Mr. Flood’s Party.” Sure I took a few swigs of whiskey-colored apple juice, and then put the jug down as tenderly as a baby, and croaked out the last words of “Auld Lang Syne,” but only when no student would volunteer to take the role. I had to do it then—against my will, you see.
And thank goodness my conscience is clear that I never sang to my students. Well, I don’t think singing Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” to the tunes of “The Ballad of Jed Camplett” and “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle” should count. Believe me: my singing cannot be considered entertaining. Besides, I was making an academic point about Protestant hymn meter and its similarity to the ballad stanza. The fact that students may have giggled in no way interfered with the desired pedagogical results.
And I did not in any sense ever dance for my students—not even figuratively. Oh, I may have danced a metaphorical do-si-do with Edutainment a time or two, but I was uncharacteristically intoxicated these times with the vain notion I could be a “popular” teacher. And in our tempestuous tango, I shoved Edutainment away as much as I held her tight, disdained her as often as I dipped her, insulted her as often as I whispered in her ear. And it meant nothing. A meaningless fling.
Yes, I was always faithful to Education. Always. I can truthfully say, “No, I did not have relations with that hussy, Edutainment.” I’m not entirely sure what “relations” is, but I know I didn’t have any.