It’s that time of year! Today, I begin yet another semester as a college professor.
Since my first semester teaching as a graduate assistant at UC Berkeley–way back in the fall of 1995–I have been lucky enough to be in my current state a total of 27 times. This is my 28th beginning to a semester spent working as a teacher.
When I began teaching, I thought of it largely (if not exclusively) in political terms. As a US historian, and as a specialist in the study of race, the political consequences of the topics we discussed in our classes were never difficult to grasp. Teaching, I reasoned, was a form of activism where I could arm people with the critical tools necessary to fashion a more equitable world.
I still see these possibilities in the study of the past, as I do in the study of almost anything that forces us to confront power. But I have to admit, this no longer forms the primary way by which I view my vocation.
Maybe I’m getting old, maybe it’s being a dad, but nowadays I most often see teaching as an act of love.
This is a very human and humane form of love. It relies on a cultivated sense of critical empathy. It nurtures our sense of self by requiring the study of others. It demands that we confront egoist ways of knowing by approaching the past as a “foreign country.”
In a few hours, I get to meet 20 or 30 young people who are at a wonderfully dynamic moment in their lives. They are coming to terms with who they are as adults, often discovering a world beyond that with which they were previously familiar. They are asking bold questions, clinging to as much as they destroy in terms of what is sacred and true.
No matter their politics, they are often living in a moment of radical potential. It is a passage for most, as it should be, but it leaves an impression that shapes the rest of their lives.
I get to witness this moment, watch them navigate through it, and participate in sometimes deeply personal ways.
It’s never the same. It changes for each student and with each term. This isn’t surprising. After all, even with their clear commonalities, each student is their own person. But classes are unique organisms, too. They have their own souls, their own energies. My role shifts with these changes but it also retains a feel of consistency.
My purpose is to nurture in them a sustained condition that lasts as long as they need it.
I challenge their ways of thinking through the voices of the past, with my own analysis and enthusiasm for the topic. I create space, room for creative thought, capacity to handle the unpredictable. I teach them how each of us makes sense of our reality from within a distinct context by showing them how I make sense of mine.
I love being a historian. I love being a teacher. I am honored to be able to provide others small moments that might contribute to their own development.
And I love those radical possibilities. Even at this stage, even at my age, every semester still provides me with my own moments of humility, demanding my empathy while revealing the limits of how much I do know.
That is the excitement of my daily life. And how lucky I am…