Anatomy of a Course: “A bit of a mess”

How should a college professor teach? Pick up a guide for new instructors (or attend a workshop aimed at the same), and you may well be advised to train yourself to be a “guide on the side” rather than a fusty old “sage on the stage.” Don’t worry, this post won’t be a rehashing of the debate between pro-lecture and anti-lecture partisans. No, my point today is that posing the question in the way it has traditionally been posed impoverishes the debate by giving only two options and by presenting those options as mutually exclusive. This is a shame, because none of the many great teachers I have seen in action were either a “sage on the stage” or a “guide on the side.” There are lots of ways to be effective in the classroom, but the folks I’ve seen with the most success have both made their teaching persona an outgrowth of their personalities and have shown flexibility in teaching methods depending on the class they’re teaching. Rendered as pithy advice, this would boil down to “Be yourself” (or, maybe, “Be your best self”) and “Pay close attention to the students in front of you.”

The model I aspire to is neither “sage” nor “guide” but “mentor.” The term “mentor” openly acknowledges the imbalance in knowledge and power that exists between me and each of my students. It allows us to embrace that imbalance and then to frame it in a way that is productive and meaningful for them. The role of mentor is also more meaningful for me than other possible roles. There aren’t many elevated stages at my small college, and I don’t have the proper beard for a sage, so that role is out. But I also die a little inside when I hear learned historians describe themselves as guides or “facilitators,” as if they were some corporate ensign at an airless breakout session with a roll of paper and a handful of markers.

I also like the model of mentor because it puts the practice of dialogue at the center of the classroom relationship. Again, this is properly a somewhat unequal dialogue. I do learn from my students, but our relationship is structured in such a way that they are supposed to learn even more from me. Still, I learn a lot through teaching. Each course is a chance to look at historical material anew and to look for different connections between that material, and that provides both the fun and the intellectual challenge that makes this job so rewarding. And in every good class, students bring angles I had overlooked or that simply wouldn’t have occurred to me.

These thoughts were occasioned by a class session in which 45 minutes were devoted to a discussion of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Spy in the Archives. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this book is intended to accomplish several things in my course. It introduces students to daily life in Moscow in the 1960s through the eyes of an exceptionally curious and attentive outsider. It details a potpourri of experiences – food, dormitories, public transportation, sex, clothing – familiar to college-aged students but set in a very different time and place. It also includes ruminations on the historian’s craft and on the reliability of memory and memoirs while giving an insider’s take on the development of the field of Soviet history. Students immediately latched on to the daily life sections of the book, and after that theme had been explored for a while, I tried to nudge them toward the memory/memoirs themes by asking them to describe how Fitzpatrick looked back on her former self. It was at this stage that a young woman in the class raised her hand and said “honestly, she’s a bit of a mess.”

That both brought me up short and made me smile. I normally don’t tell students up front that Fitzpatrick was my own mentor, as I want them to feel free in their discussions and criticisms. But now I did fess up. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say that about her before,” I replied, before telling my students both that she was my dissertation advisor and that her reputation from the time I met her in the early 90s until today was not only distinctly unmessy but also a bit fearsome. Her comments as a reader and interlocutor when I was in graduate school were crisp and clear. I remember the praise and the criticism word for word even now, twenty-five years later. She has always held her own (and usually much better than held her own) in academic combat with similarly sharp and crisp thrusts, a sort of Arya Stark avant la lettre.

But it is certainly true that Fitzpatrick portrayed “young Sheila” in messy ways, especially where men were concerned (which were the parts that my student cited when explaining her “mess” comment). It wasn’t only affairs of the heart that tripped her up. It was also dealing with shyness, with roommates, with swimming pools, and with Oxford. So my students and I tried to make sense of this together. It was, we thought, evident that part of the explanation was that she wanted to treat her letters and diaries (and memories) with the same critical eye that she treated all sources as a historian. But we also decided that there was probably more to it and that we might usefully examine the parallels between how she treated the Soviet Union (always formidable, but whose stern reputation hid considerable disorder) and the way she treated herself. It is, of course, possible to make too much of this parallel, but it was not one that had struck me in previous readings or in the previous course in which I taught the book. If the connection occurred to Fitzpatrick, she does not foreground it, as she is more interested in pursuing the parallel between spies and historians promised in the title. At the end, she settles on the interpretation that “[t]aken together, the letters and diary look more like research notes than anything else, meaning that the researcher – and more distantly, the scholarly community she belongs to – is the real addressee. That would make me both my own spymaster, which is a bit far-fetched, and an agent of myself, which I suppose is what we all hope to be.” [344] My students helped me see at least one part of that agency, a different side of a figure that is both vitally important and dear to me.

I continue to ruminate about this episode and about mentorship and about what makes for a great teacher. Thinking specifically about Fitzpatrick, I think back not only to the graduate seminars I took from her, but also to the undergraduate class on Soviet history that I served as a TA in once. She took that class very seriously, and I learned a lot from watching her as a lecturer and as she interacted with students. She also gave me the opportunity to teach a class and observed me doing so. Though I had taught in high school before going to graduate school, I must have been terrified, both by the students and by performing for my mentor. I don’t remember much except for an unexpected question from a student at the end. They had read Molotov’s conversations with Felix Chuev, which included Molotov’s denial that there had been secret protocols attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The student wanted to know whether the aged Molotov had forgotten or perhaps had meant something else. “No,” I blurted out, “he was lying.” I second-guessed myself even as I spoke the words for not engaging with the complexities and “what ifs” present in the question, but I didn’t need to worry. It got a laugh from the class, but most importantly, it got an appreciative chuckle from Fitzpatrick, sitting to the side of my vision. In retrospect, I see that it was exactly the kind of answer she liked: direct and slightly unexpected. But still, I valued the affirmation, all the more since it was not automatic. I know for sure that my own relationship with students is marked by all the mentors in my past, above all by her. I know I’ve said thanks to her in the past for being my mentor, but I’m not sure that I did so sufficiently and I’m quite sure I never thanked her for teaching me how to mentor others. So I’ll say it now and plead forgiveness in her own words: “All I can say in extenuation is that when you’re young, you don’t always believe that your seniors are human.” [286]

About Joshua Sanborn

Professor and Head, Department of History Chair, Russian and East European Studies Program Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a Course, Teaching Russian History, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Anatomy of a Course: “A bit of a mess”

  1. Karl Qualls says:

    Beautiful sentiment, Josh.

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