Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Balancing Act

Life requires a delicate balance, and that is especially true in teaching.

Over the years, I've developed a somewhat formal style in the classroom: I usually address the students as Mr. or Ms. and I expect them to call me Dr. or professor. I know that today most professors are less formal than that but I believe that there is too much informality in our lives: E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of electronic communication rely on quick, abbreviated messages and the loss of all barriers. If I am trying to teach a discipline, I have to start with teaching in a disciplined way, and I want them to perceive me as being disciplined. Which is not to say, that I don't want them to think I'm not nice or approachable, or that they can't come to me for help. But I also don't want them to think that they can roll me, either. (More on that later).

And perhaps I'm a bit defensive. There are so few Latino/a professors, still, in 2009; the last available figures, for 2007, put Latinos/as at only 3.6% of the professoriate. Despite the claims some have made that we are now in the post-racial Obama era, many people still think Latinos are not particularly bright or associate us with everything they fear and dislike; the issue is further complicated by fear of the immigration from south of the border or just plain xenophobia. Thank heavens for Justice Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina"! Now something besides teen pregnancy and gang girls will be associated with the word "Latina." When I was in graduate school, I heard the veiled racism of those who claimed that I only got a job because I was Hispanic. I worry that we are not yet, as a society, past that attitude, and part of my insistence on being called by my title is a response to that.

On the other hand, I am touched when my Latino students write me thank you notes when the semester ends. They almost always tell me that I am the first Latino/a teacher they have ever had and they treat me as a role model. It bestows an awesome responsibility on me that I strive to fulfill.

Once they are past our initial encounters, many students come to address notes to me with "Dr. P"--that's fine. Oh, to have an easy name like "Cortes"! But my ancestors endowed me with the unpronounceable, unspellable (for anyone not endowed with the name) "Pegueros." I must say that it gives me great pleasure when, after years away from school, a former student sees me in a store and calls out, "Dr. P!!" In the inimitable Rhode Island accent , "Hey, Docta P!"

To return to the issue of discipline: I am astonished how many of my students claim never to have written a book report, or written a research paper. You would not believe how many students tell me that they have never read an entire book until they took my class. I wonder if it is an excuse or if it is true that such exercises have been discontinued in primary and secondary education. I ask them if they have ever read "The Scarlet Letter" or "Red Badge of Courage," or another of the classics that filled my childhood hours, or even "Harry Potter"? I am distressed at how many students say they hate to read. What, I wonder silently, are you doing in college? When they tell me that they are education majors, it helps me to understand why our students don't read but I can't help but wonder why they want to be teachers! If the teachers hate to read, how do they communicate a love of learning? Faced with this question, another comes to mind: What can I do to change this?

Some people say that it's not our responsibility; that we should teach the ones who are teachable, who meet our standards. Perhaps the Ivy Leagues have the luxury of picking those who have the best preparation for college but we, in the state universities offer higher education to a broader spectrum of students, and we are the ones who will increase the middle class and bring greater prosperity to our society by doing so. Before they can pursuit fruitful careers, however, they have to learn how to learn and develop a love of learning.

More on that next time.

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