I’ve been tinkering with my way of explaining my philosophy of teaching lately.
I think the easiest way to explain the most “different” from the norm part of it is with a metaphor, a trite old cliche in action. It’s about giving you the rope.
But let me start with a story. If you know me well, this is one of my stock stories, so sorry that you have to read it again. In high school, I was big on Dungeons & Dragons. Huge on it. So was my friend, the once-mentioned-here-in-retrospect Rod. We used to build complex campaigns to play with our other friends, all sorts of nerdy ideas and numbers and concepts and such.
This is what differentiated me from all my friends in that regard– even from Rod. I am not, by trade, an actor. I probably could have been at one point, but if you look at me, you can tell I’m not the acting type. The camera doesn’t love me. So much so that teaching my class on streaming technologies sometimes causes me mild panic (“damn, I look like ass!”)
But for all the not being an actor, I am a partisan in the court of character. So when it comes to role-play, or disappearing into a character to write a story, I’m committed (and I’m told I’m good). I once scared a group of lower level students to death by modeling an activity for my creative writing professor where he asked me to come in as my novel’s protagonist and interact with the students as they asked questions. That protagonist was a little off. Many of those students, two years later, still thought I was that character.
All of that is just to say that in one of our D&D campaigns, Rod didn’t force us to all play similar alignment, and I played a drow elf super-emo dagger-for-hire (imagine a goth Martin Blank with jet black skin and purple eyes who thinks he’s Boba Fett). It wasn’t all that hard at first to keep the party in line. They were all good (lawful or neutral), but since my motivation was to get stuff and get famous, my character fit philosophically.
Until a major plot beat.
We’d been playing for A LONG time. I want to say it was over six months (it might have been almost a whole school year. I know it ended in May). We finally came to a point where our alignments and our motivations came into conflict. We were hired, as a group, to go retrieve a family heirloom for a noble NPC. We took the mission, but I told the group at one point, in a moment of in-character complete truth, that I might decide I want the treasure more than I want the payment. They laughed it off.
It was a long trek– several weeks worth of sessions– to find the artifact. We had to kill a pretty gnarly monster. The artifact was in a box. The Noble sent the key with us. Our party’s leader opened it.
It was a glowing, ornate, amazing dagger.
I convinced him to let me examine it. I had the skill to determine it was enchanted. It was an amazing item. It was one of those “once in a character lifetime” items, the sort of weapon that has a name and a story that becomes part of the lore of a character. Boba Blank wanted it. Badly.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. I could have done a number of things, being smart about how the game works. I could have been super-deceptive. I could have used my skills to just steal the dagger. I could have simply not given it back. I could have GTA’ed it and gone into the noble’s house after the others returned the dagger and stolen it.
But I wanted to be honest to the character and play correctly. He sort of liked those people. So I offered to buy each person off– the full price of the reward to each of the other three to just leave me the dagger and never speak of the actual owner again. They refused. I yielded the dagger back to the party’s leader, but he told me to keep it “on the road,” as he reasoned (as a player, not as a character) that having use of it would help us if we ran into a fight.
We made our way back to the noble. As we approached his home, I passed a note to Rod, the DM, telling him that I wanted to slow down. The party started to climb the stairs. They knew I’d slowed, almost stopped, and they kept going. I went into stealth and they lost track of me, though they weren’t paying attention to that fact, as they were talking about getting the reward (and the XP).
Then it happened.
I attacked the healer first. He wasn’t paying attention, and a single strike killed him. He’d also broken off from the party ever-so-slightly, so they didn’t hear me attack him. Then I went for the party leader, the warrior. I rolled a 20. He was dying, ironically due to the dagger he left me carry. I turned on the magic user. He tried to cast a spell, but he was intimidated by my feat and couldn’t. He turned to run.
Never turn your back on a killer.
And so I left my three compatriots lying there, dead. I looted them, because why not, right? Why not take memories, like the warrior’s thick dire wolf cape, or the mage’s lucky coin? I even considered burning their bodies, as that was what my character considered a proper burial.
My friends were appalled, other than Rod, who loved the entire sequence. I tried to explain to them that Phill didn’t kill their characters, D’Nin’n did. And he’d warned them. He didn’t want to do it, but he wasn’t going to give up his chance. You see the dagger, it had a name. And a voice. And the voice told him of the amazing things they might do together. And that, to an emo outcast fame whore assassin, is the siren’s song. And yes, as a person I felt bad about them feeling bad, but as a player of the game I couldn’t imagine the disappointment had my character just gone along with their plans. I’d given them their opportunities.
Why that long story here?
Because what I did to my group of friends there is very similar to part of my teaching philosophy that I have trouble articulating to others, particularly to students who don’t quite get it. No– I’m not saying part of my pedagogy is backstabbing (I’ve met people…). What I’m saying is my character D’Nin’n gave his party the rope. They could use it to pull him back to them or to hang themselves. He didn’t care. All he was worried about was giving them the rope. It wasn’t in his character make-up to care if they survived, just as it’s not my responsibility as a teacher who knows he cares too much to save every student. I have to do my best. But I have to protect myself, too.
I’ve been doing this with my upper-level students for a few years. It works well, but the ones who don’t get it (even if it works for them) get really confused when I try to explain it. The concept is pretty simple.
I teach. If you need me, I will do whatever I can as a teacher to help someone learn. But if you don’t listen, and you don’t read directions, and you don’t ask questions, and you don’t put in work… I give you rope. The rope keeps you tethered to class, but you have to make a choice. You can pull the rope and start the hard work of climbing back, of doing the work, of making it happen.
Or you can hang yourself. Metaphorically, of course. I know we live in a world where people take things too literally, so don’t get me wrong. I don’t want any of my students to harm themselves. This is about a metaphor with rope and the old cliche “the rope to hang yourself.”
Here’s what I mean. I don’t make my students close their computers in class when we’re talking. I will stop them if they are making noise, or disrupting another person, but when they’re just ignoring me to play Overwatch or to surf Facebook, that’s on them. If I made them stop, they’d doodle, or they’d tap their feet, or they’d nap. You cannot make a person who isn’t willing to engage pay attention. Other people seem to think there’s a magic to it. Trust me– I know how to tell a story. I know how to pull in an audience. But I also know when someone could care less.
I send reminders when work is due, and I check in if someone misses an assignment, but then I stop. Because if we nag our students until they do their work, we aren’t creating real people who can do real jobs later. I will always help, but I won’t do the legwork for the student. No one should. No one should feel the need.
And lastly, I will say openly to anyone who asks that no, they do not “have” to come to my class or “have” to do their work. We enter into an agreement. There are consequences for not doing the work in my classes, for not coming to class meetings, etc. But I don’t presume to be the boss of anyone. Students are free to choose to suffer the consequences. They paid for a class and will be evaluated for that class. If they choose not to do enough work, that’s its own punishment. They don’t need me to be a nag. And part of learning to be an adult is learning that sometimes you want to go to class and want to do your work but other things happen. I don’t want to hinder the process of learning that.
So that’s a part of my philosophy now. Uncoiling rope. I’m a 40-year-old Assistant Professor who uncoils rope to audiences and hopes to see them fashion amazing things from it. If they don’t, I liberate myself from worry by noting that until the semester ends, I’m holding the other end of that rope. All they have to do is reach out. I’ll even do the lion’s share of the pulling if they talk to me about it. And if they don’t and the time comes… I let go. And I sleep easy at night.
I have more rope.