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  • Writer's pictureVirginia M. Schwarz

Why I Teach

I teach because I enjoy teaching. I teach because I get to talk about what I love with people I care about. I teach because I’m an artist who can’t draw. I teach because my family is my cat and my car… and my students. I teach because a well-designed handout makes me happy, comma splices are my enemy, and semi colons look silly. I teach because I enjoy learning. Teaching is my nerdy hobby and my chosen profession. I teach because there’s no thesis in this introduction and you, dear students, are about to call me out on this. 

I, English Student

As a Literature scholar, of course I see the nobility of my discipline. I see myself as a reader and a writer and genuinely care about Bloom’s lonely day in Dublin, Gatsby’s tragic ending, and Siddhartha’s spiritual journey. I fondly remember the moment I learned fun vocabulary words, like “insipid” and “ubiquitous.” My favorite moment as a student was translating Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Archiac Torso of Apollo," putting all those word puzzles together with only basic German and my own imagination. The magic moment in all of these texts had little to do with the author and everything to do with my life at the time. Literature, for me, has always been living. 

On the morning of The September 11th, classes at San Diego State University were held as scheduled. Maybe we were all so paralyzed by shock that we went on with our daily routines in denial, or maybe we continued to show up because we were scared teachers might mark us absent for the day. I went from the student union lounge, televisions repeating the images of smoke and fire, and sat down in Psychology 101. My hot-shot grad teacher attempted to make sense of the event by starting a political conversation and asking us what we thought. Stubbornly punk rock, I sat in my back-row seat with my arms folded, and when this twenty-something year old turned to me, I told her I had nothing to say. The problem wasn't with her, the problem was with what I thought she was representing: a field made up of thoughts and figuring out thoughts. Previous classes had seemed like group therapy sessions, and none of those discussions ever meant anything to me. Forced to memorize organs and disorders, I was an outsider.

After Psychology, I walked over to Adams Humanities for my literature and criticism class. Dr. Martin, see I even remember his name, told us to open our books to the assigned reading for the day, TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” This poem, composed of layers of meaning and mystery, is difficult reading: 

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water.

Goosebumps. When I say literature lives, I mean that I am listening and responding; the author is sending me a message, I am internalizing this and it changes me somehow. It heals me. It makes me better, more empathetic, more wise, more human feeling. The idea is now my own. I wear it. This was the first time I realized the transformative power of literature and the potential of the English classroom. We took turns reading and through the voicing of those words, we became a community. We hurt a little less by sharing Eliot’s pain and our pain that morning. I’m not saying that everyone should love reading or writing; rather, everyone should love something and realize how precious moments of transcendence and connection are.

I, English Teacher

I’d love to tell you that was when I knew I had to teach, but that would be a lie.  A great story but a lie. I was many things before I was a teacher, and teaching was an accident.  As a graduate student, I needed some extra units, and the only class that fit my schedule was “Teaching College English.” I took it. Designing a syllabus gave me the same sense of joy as a writing a poem, so teaching material became my new literature.

My goal as a teacher, of course, is to make every classroom magical, memorable. I want us to feel something, to be something. Because students are tired or busy, or I’m tired or busy, I know that aim isn't always attainable. Yes, it took me years, but I have revised my goal to sound less idealistic and more practical: create a course people want to attend and do the homework for, a class that is not a waste of time or money. I’m sure they've had plenty of crappy teachers, God knows I have, who have humbled their expectations. I hear all the time, “I don’t care, as long as I pass.” But I don’t want a dead class. I want a living, breathing, functioning space of art, and maybe if I love it enough, we will also come alive. I’m always trying to be better for students—perfect.

I want to support students' voices; after all, they listen to my dumb jokes all term.  They can borrow my voice too as I will gladly assist them with papers from other classes, parking tickets, or letters of recommendation. But the best voice is their own. Students have amazing ideas and stories to share, and I am consistently impressed by their progress in expressing these ideas and stories through out a term. When someone hates writing just a little less, I consider my endeavor a success. Every person deserves to feel good about their writing. When teachers don’t believe in their students, how are students supposed to believe in themselves? In order to help students become comfortable using their own style while blending it with accepted conventions (or critically rejecting those conventions!), we should provide not only a class for students but also the necessary support and encouragement to help them succeed.

I, Learner

I teach because I want to be part of your class with you. I teach because I want to teach you karate or something bad-ass, but all I have are my words to give. I teach because I think about teaching while I’m in the shower, in my car driving, and curled up under covers. I think about teaching while I teach. I’m like one of those eccentric writer people we read about, only I am not a writer, I am a teacher. Fleeting, frantic voices in my mind produce sticky note after sticky note and lesson outlines along the office walls.

I teach because I enjoy getting to know you, and I want you to enjoy college. Thanks for being in my class and helping me learn. I will never forget you and the conversations we shared in our 101 together.  Everyday of the quarter I felt truly lucky to listen to your ideas in class and on paper. I appreciate you.  


For my Spring 2011 students.

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