Last Words on Teaching: What Will I Miss?

This post is the last in a series on "How to Succeed in College." Click on the author's name above for his previous posts.

My father ws a journalist, my mother a teacher. My earliest recollections of them in their roles are still strong: my father, either at home or in his cubby hole at the far end of the newsroom pounding out with four fingers on an old Underwood 40,000 editorials over his career for the Trenton Times and more for the Brooklyn Eagle, New York Herald Tribune, Philadelphia Record, and the Monitor, the paper of the diocese of Trenton; and my mother, who taught in both the public and Catholic school systems, sitting up late marking papers, giving each assignment and each student loving attention.

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So I have tried to lead both their lives for about 43 years, teaching at five Jesuit colleges and universities and three private or city universities, and serving part time as editor or columnist for Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter and writing op-eds and blogging for the Newark Star Ledger until I left Saint Peter’s College in July to join the America staff full time.

I wrote this series of pieces on college education to gently extricate myself from a way of life I led by sharing my main ideas one last time. I have talked with friends who have stopped: we all hate to leave, but know we must, and, at the same time seize opportunities to grow in the ten or twenty years of work ahead. Jesuits are expected to work till we drop.

What will I most miss?

When I went to summer camp as a teenager we had a counselor who also taught theater at Hamilton College. He said Jesus was the quiet person who introduced guests to one another at a wedding reception. He meant that Jesus was not introducing us to himself; and I tried to apply that to teaching. Students weren’t there to learn about me; my job was to introduce them to Thoreau, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Hemingway.

I will miss the classes on Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, when Ivan, dying from a wound incurred while vainly decorating his new house to improve his social status, realizes that his life has been self-centered, but he is saved by a compassionate gesture from his young son. Thoreau’s Walden is not about nature as much as it is about integrity. And Hemingway’s short stories are sometimes surpassed by his journalism, collected in By-Line, which includes “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter” from Esquire, October 1935. A young writer comes to Key West to ask the master’s advice on writing. What should I read? the young man asks. Read everything the master replies, so he knows “what he has to beat.” If he can’t read “everything,” what’s necessary? The Master gives a long list in which Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Crane and Twain stand out.

I will miss introducing young writers to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, the best and shortest book on writing, now apparently disregarded by faculty. This spring I was visited several times by a student who had gone to Saint Peter’s thinking I would be there, but traveled to Manhattan for some extra work. With S & W I was able, I hope, to teach him the difference between the active and passive voice, and to convince him that “impact” is not (or hardly ever) a verb; that “facility” means ease resulting from skill, and is no substitute for prison, factory, hospital, or gymnasium.

I will not miss the students who have come to college not to learn, but to get the degree by the easiest means available. If a core course is taught with any rigor, they drop it, and they can always find an easier class down the hall, with few books and papers and the teacher who does not insist that they always come to class. They can take courses pass/fail, which means they may do only 60 percent of the work and still get credit for a college course. Who would hire a student who does only 60 percent of a job?

I will miss the students I worked with on the college newspapers, many of whom have gone on to The New York Times, Washington Post, Newark Star Ledger, Minneapolis Tribune, and Newsday. Just now, as I was typing, I got an email from a Fordham graduate, Pulitzer Prize winner, now in Vietnam sending stories back, and another Fordham grad now an editor of the Star Ledger, which has just won a Pulitzer this week. And I’ll miss the students on the swimming team, soccer team, and baseball team at Saint Peter’s and Loyola New Orleans where I served as “chaplain.” My main contribution was simply to show up at meets and games and encourage, especially at Loyola, New Orleans, where those sports in the 1990s were just getting started.

In the last few years students I have not seen in 20 or 30 years have popped back into my life with “You might not remember me but” emails and letters. I do, the emails often lead to dinners in Manhattan, and I usually give them homework, something I just read which I think they would or should enjoy.

In my Jesuit training I learned that we should love our students, pray over each name on the class list and ask what I could do for him or her. I have. And they have returned more love than I deserve.

In the months ahead I will replace my “Succeed” blog with one called "Readings." I subscribe to 15 periodicals and think I should share what I discover there. So I’ll pick a series of articles you might have missed and perhaps introduce you to a writer you did not know.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.

 

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