Surrounded by thickets of pedagogy, learning theories, and political rhetoric, teaching remains a remarkably personal enterprise. Although we want similar results from our students—intellectual engagement, mastery of knowledge, and connective thinking—we walk into our classrooms as individuals. We enter as individuals with varying levels of expertise, varied expectations, and different motivations for what we want to accomplish in the classroom, struggling between what we hope occurs and what actually does. In turn, our shared commitment to teaching is shaped by personal experiences and distinct aspirations.
What drives me? I am driven by fear. Let me tell you a story.
About twenty years ago I landed in LAX coming back from an anthropology conference. The conference had lasted several days, so I left my car in Lot C, the long-term parking. I came out of the airport terminal and waited for the shuttle. It was late at night and I was tired, so I climbed on board the shuttle, said “Good evening” to the driver, shoved my suitcase in the rack, and slumped into a seat.
The shuttle pulled away from the curb. I glanced forward and read the driver’s name plate. I recognized the name. He had been a student of mine at Dominguez Hills.
I remembered this young man. He was a studio art major enrolled in my lower division GE course in archaeology. One afternoon, I was looking at an exhibit in the gallery at LaCorte Hall, and this young man was working there, sitting in the information booth just inside the entrance.
We chatted. He was really excited because he was interested in sculpture. He was making the transition from sculpting by shaping clay into ceramic objects to learning how to sculpt stone. We got into a long conversation about this new stage in his art, moving from the additive process of creating ceramic forms to the challenge of discovering the hidden forms within stone, an tactile exploration that Michelangelo described as, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
This student was really excited about this challenge, and we talked for a half hour or so. Later that week in my archaeology class, I was discussing a similar transition that occurred during the Upper Paleolithic of Europe, when people realized that instead of making a core of stone into a single hand-axe, they could take the core and use it as raw materials for different kinds of tools—spear points, awls, knife blades, and so on—discovering the hidden possibilities latent in the stone. I asked this young man to describe for the class his own transformation from ceramics to stone and the process of discovering hidden patterns in his art. He shared his experiences and his excitement with the class. It was a great “teaching moment.”
I remembered all of this that night on the shuttle bus, so I stood up and went to the front of the bus as we swerved through traffic.
“Hi there,” I said. “I know you! You were my student at Cal State Dominguez Hills!”
He glanced over his shoulder, nodded and let out a deep sigh. “That was a long, long time ago.”
There was nothing more to say. I went back to my seat.
In fact, it had only been a couple of years. Yet, spending his nights driving the shuttle around and around LAX, it must have seemed like a long time had passed between who he was that afternoon in my class—excited by the possibilities of discovery—and where he was that night.
There is nothing wrong with honest work. Who knows how his life has changed since that night?
We pulled into Lot C. I grabbed my bag and said “Good bye.” He drove away. I have never seen him again.
But as I walked to my car, I was overcome by a dark fear that somehow I had failed that man, my student. And I swore that I would do everything I could to never have that dark fear again.
It has been more than twenty years, but not a week passes when I don’t think about that night on the shuttle bus. And since that night, I have done everything I could do to teach better, to motivate, mentor, and challenge my students—because I do not want to have that dark fear of failure ever again.
In my teaching, I am fundamentally driven by fear.
This blog series is entitled, “Aun Aprendo: Random Notes from a CSUDH Professor.”
Professor Jerry D. Moore is an archaeologist and has taught at CSUDH since 1991. His archaeological research centers on prehistoric cultural landscapes and the development of complex societies in Andean South America. His 2012 book, The Prehistory of Home, received the Society for American Archaeology’s 2014 Award for a book written for a popular audience.