I’m an English teacher and, obviously, people expect me to be the Tom Brady of punctuation. I'm not, of course-- I'm much more the Bill Murray of metaphor-- but people have expectations. At Thanksgiving dinner this past week, my brother asked me about the lyrics for Bill Withers song “Just the Two of Us” and whether it should be “you and I” or “you and me.”
“Just the two of us
We can make it if we try
Just the two of us, you and I”
I know the answer to this, luckily—“you and I” is correct. My brother didn’t agree. He wanted me to explain it to him and I, using one of my best teaching techniques, refused. I asked him if he understood the concept of “Nominative Case.” He loved that response so much he stopped talking to me.
By the way, that’s a way to end any conversation you don’t want to have. Feel free to borrow it. By the way, sorry about that, Paul.
Was my intent to shut him down? Hell no. My brother was shut down already. He didn’t want to understand anything—he just wanted a fast answer. And teaching has little to do with fast answers.
I f@#$ing love grammar. I should also say that I know that “none in the accident was hurt” is correct and that “he handed me a beer” is, literally, insane. I also know that my usage of “literally” in the last sentence is inappropriate and overblown—but, let’s be honest, people think that it would be “inappropriate” for a teacher to have a glass of wine in the teachers' lunchroom. I would call it “civilized.”
While we’re on it, the word “lunchroom” is a crime against humanity.
Teachers aren’t walking Wikipedias and yet, stupidly, that’s the way we are widely seen. In fact, we often see ourselves that way. Good teachers should know stuff and explain it to everyone. We teachers like this role, I think.
But that’s jacked up—and it reveals an enormous problem in how we see what great teachers actually do.
Teachers Explain Things To Me
This past summer, I stumbled upon Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant and bestselling book Men Explain Things To Me. I liked the text so much I’m reading it with my senior communications students this year. Solnit nails the issue of “mansplaining,” a term she used in the Los Angeles Times in 2008 to describe how some men cluelessly tell women “how things are.” We so obviously live in a man’s world—a place where men are encouraged to be successful and confident much more than women. Mansplaining reveals how certain men rarely recognize this fundamental reality and explain things entirely from their own privileged and oblivious point of view.
But I don’t believe Solnit’s message is necessarily just about gender. It’s about how a culture of explaining is, inherently, self-deluding. Power creates a sort of blindness in communication. “Explaining” itself is the problem.
As a culture, we misunderstand the purpose of teaching, learning, and school. Most of us believe that school is where we go to acquire content and skill mastery. Anything we can’t learn on our own must be “taught” to us, we believe. And the way we learn is through explanation.
Here’s where teachers come in. Good teachers are good explainers, we think.
But great teachers don’t explain much of anything.
The greats ask questions. They patiently advise students through moments of frustration. They pay attention to students, crafting responses that direct inquiry. They shine the light on a different part of a problem and say “what about that?” A great teacher sees a student’s ignorance not as a problem to be stamped out, punished, or conquered. Ignorance is an opportunity to spark curiosity. Learners don't want answers. They want to learn.
When we explain things, we diminish curiosity and discovery. We disable and we marginalize. We say, “good thing I’m here or you’d never figure this out.” Sure, sometimes a question needs a simple, fast answer. But, most of the time, questions should lead to more questions, searches, and analysis. Is it annoying? Sometimes. Is it transformative? Often.
Feed a person a fish and she eats for a day.
Teach her to fish and she eats for a lifetime.
Explain fishing to her and she’ll be really f@#$ing bored.
And she’ll probably hate fishing.
-"Chalkboard Math" Forbes http://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2013/02/26/to-end-the-gender-skill-gap-in-stem-add-competition-to-the-equation/
-Rothman, Lily. "A Cultural History of Mansplaining." http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2012/11/a-cultural-history-of-mansplaining/264380/
-Zakanova Natalia, 'Fishing Girl"