The existential despair of teaching

I teach American history at a state university. I like the job, for many reasons, not all of them noble. But I walk out of nearly every class with a feeling of having failed. Nearly every class. I suspect that’s true of most teachers.

This could just be neurosis, because according to the standard metrics we use to measure teaching quality (peer reviews and student evaluations)  I show up as quite a good teacher.

It’s true those measures are suspect–students fill them out in haste, and especially with undergraduates, it’s not always clear that they understand “good teacher” in the same way we do. That is, on the aggregate undergraduates tend to reward an entertaining teacher rather than a demanding teacher.

I also enjoy a range of unearned advantages–I’m very tall, I have gray hair, I’m middle aged, and a male, which is pretty much the jackpot of assumed, unearned credibility with first year students, and probably inflates my scores.

But I think the recurring sense of failure–and fellow teachers, check me if I’m wrong–is a problem of scale, the feeling that however well you did, there’s so much more to it. And the more you know, the more you care, the worse the problem gets. The more you know, the less likely you are to be able to convey it effectively: it’s too complicated and there’s too much of it.

One argument to this would be “it’s not about conveying your knowledge, you egotist; it’s about teaching the process of making knowledge available.” That’s very true, but even there, as a teacher your sense of/experience of the process of making knowledge available is so much deeper/broader than the students. I have a lot more “ways of reading” available to me and what’s more I’m comfortable with them and reasonably fluid, the way everybody gets with practice. It takes years.

So the the argument becomes “you aren’t teaching actual knowledge and you aren’t teaching actual methods, you’re opening a door students can walk through.” That is, to paraphrase the old cliche, you aren’t actually teaching a man to fish, you’re just teaching him that there’s such a thing as fishing and here’s a way to do it, which probably won’t actually work because it’s much too simple.

There are probably fields where experience doesn’t work against you. General contracting, for example, or skilled trades generally. But I’m willing to bet that in most fields there’s a balance point, after which experience and knowledge become a double edged sword. Imagine you are a professional musician. The longer you play, the more the weight of what you’ve already played before bears on the present.

This may seem like whining, or worse like fishing for compliments. I don’t mean it as either. I like my job and in the spectrum of jobs, it’s a good one and I’m lucky to have it, and I’m not bad at it. But I doubt I’m alone in this feeling.


  • This seems like a natural progression to me – as you gain experience you find new and different ways to improve (or think you should). I came into grad school feeling like I wasn’t sure I belonged – every year that goes by I learn how much I don’t know, and feel more like a fraud, rather than the other way around. I see it as a positive in that in makes me continue to strive for more, although sometimes it’s stifling and just plain depressing. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that just ASKING these questions makes you a great teacher – you refuse to settle.

  • Mark Bower wrote:

    Sure, it’s great when someone walks out of class thinking, “I really learned something today.” I’d also call it great teaching if a student walks into your class thinking,”I know everything,” and walks out thinking, “Wow, it’s too com­pli­cated, and there’s too much of it.” That is of course if you give them a little hope to go with that doubt.

  • you’re right, but you rarely know if that’s the case

  • I often wonder if this feeling is a problem of the expectation for instant gratification. I’ve started to re-evaluate how I function in the student-teacher relationship, especially as I make my way through the PhD program and think about the type of educator I want to be.

    I’m quite introverted and sometimes even shy. I’m not going to be the student that comes up to the teacher after class to keep talking about what we learned because I need time to process it. It occurs to me that this is often perceived as indifference, when the reality is my head continues to spin, often to the point of insomnia.

    My point is that even though I know this about myself, I often look for a feedback loop–gesture, nod in appreciation, questions, thoughts, comments–from others to signal that what I’m saying is getting through. In the digital world of expecting instant gratification or acknowledgment, it messes with my head not to have an immediate response to something I’m teaching. I have to keep reminding myself that everybody (including me!) processes information differently.

  • One of the best suggestions I faced early on in teaching is to flip the perspective. Like most educators, I beat myself up with high expectations and often asked “What did I do wrong?” or “How can I better teach this?”

    Then, after sound advice, I found that my approach to curriculum works better if you ask “Where are my students struggling?” or “How can (x) better help my students learn history?” Too often, students are an afterthought when–at least in the classroom–they should be at center of learning.

    This change of perspective has really piqued my own curiosity on the significance of digital technology for teaching and learning history. If I am to switch to Prezi, for example, it shouldn’t be simply because it’s snazzier and allows me to embed YouTube clips. There has to be a rationale that explains how students can actually learn history by watching a Prezi-based presentation; or, better yet, creating their own Prezis, taking advantage of its unique features to better convey historical understanding.

  • marie therese guirgis wrote:

    understand you’re not fishing for compliments, but you are the greatest professor I ever had and you opened up the world to me in more ways than you know. you had a greater influence on my intellectual development than anyone else, including grad school professors and more importantly you inspired my interest in the larger social themes that still interest me most. even though i ended up studying film in graduate school and pursuing a career in film, your influence helped shape the kinds of films I am interested in to this day and certainly my approach to film as an academic discipline and a passion. so there. frustrating as I’m sure it can be, there are many more like me.

  • […] only thing I don’t like about Mike O’Malley’s post about “the existential despair of teaching” is that it doesn’t include Marx’s quip about the tradition of all dead generations […]

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