Originally, I added a few lines from a prose poem at the end of the compilation of reader responses to our queries about the questions teachers ask students. I wasn’t sure; the content fit, but it was poetry. My excellent editor called it a “swerve,” an aptly chosen word that describes quick movements in unexpected directions. Swerves are risky, unsettling experiences. Poetry rarely appears in academic writing, even informal writing like a column on teaching and learning. We decided to delete the poetic ending.
It was another poem, “Awakening” by Suzanne Le-May Sheffield, that motivated me to include the prose poem lines. Suzanne’s poem was recently published in Teaching & Learning Inquiry, a peer-reviewed scholarship of teaching and learning journal. Her poem explores how the academy affects our humanity. In a commentary that follows, Suzanne recounts her feelings about sharing the poem and the feedback she received upon submitting it. It’s a fascinating account that reflects how the academy struggles to deal with affective ways of knowing.
The dominant orientation to teaching remains the intellectual one. Instructional expertise rests firmly and comfortably on content knowledge. Nonetheless, most of us have learned that we cannot power a teaching career with the intellect alone. Despite this recognition, we struggle to find academic venues where we can write and speak freely about how teaching touches, draws on, and yes, even embraces our humanity.
Our long attempts to gain recognition for teaching have birthed and grown a scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), an accomplishment that merits celebration. SoTL work has expanded the reach and improved the quality of the pedagogical journals that exist in virtually every field, with some crossing disciplinary and international boundaries. Rising publication standards now include blind peer reviews and detailed editorial requirements that eliminate all but the best submissions. Robust research reports advances in our knowledge of teaching and learning. Instructional innovations are examined and assessed empirically.
Even so, if you ask faculty about favorite articles, the best things read on teaching and learning, research articles do not top their lists or mine. Rather, we reference personal narratives, the first-person accounts and analyses of significant teaching experiences—articles that explore what teachers aspire to accomplish beyond content knowledge (Husted, 2001), that fess up to mistakes and failures (Cohen, 2009), that shake up long-held assumptions (Tanner, 2011), and that describe “edgy” feelings about a teaching life (Walck, 1997).
The first newsletter on teaching that I edited contained different kinds of articles—summaries of research, resources on different teaching topics, short essays, accounts of experiences with particular teaching strategies, and interviews with master teachers. Any leftover space I filled with pithy quotes on teaching and learning. In my first reader survey, I asked faculty to rank the various kinds of articles. To my amazement, those quotations topped the list. Apparently, they filled a personal need in addition to occupying empty space.
I’m not expecting our academic journals to start publishing poetry or adding quotations, but I do wish there was greater openness to work that delves into what’s depicted as the “softer” side of teaching. That thinking demeans a part of teaching just as robust as the acquisition of complex content. There’s no emotional fluff involved in the hard mental effort it takes to critically dissect a teaching experience or narrate the account of a difficult discovery on the road to teaching excellence. “Disturbing the still surface of deep waters makes us fully human,” Suzanne writes in “Awakening.”
Poetry packs more punch than prose. It can make you swerve, stop suddenly, and feel something unexpected. The editors of Teaching with Fire (2003) asked high school and college teachers to select a poem that held meaning for them as teachers. The poems appear on one page; opposite, teachers reveal the reasons behind their choices. Every time I look at the book, I am dazzled and delighted by what teaching is for others and what it has been for me.
We need to touch the soul of teaching more often, and “Awakening” explains how:
Let’s welcome different, varied, messy stories,
Take risks, share moments of struggle,
Be bold and courageous, personal and vulnerable,
Create, transform, reflect, perform,
See beauty and tragedy,
Accepting our humanity in the academy.
Cohan, M. (2009). Bad apple: The social production and subsequent reeducation of a bad teacher. Change, 41(6), 32–36. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20696191
Husted, B. L. (2001). Hope, for the dry side. College English, 64(2), 243–249. https://doi.org/10.2307/1350121
Intrator, S. M., & Scribner, M. (Eds.). (2003). Teaching with fire: Poetry that sustains the courage to teach. Jossey-Bass.
Sheffield, S. L.-M. (2020). Awakening (to all of our SoTL stories). Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 8(2), 221–223. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.8.2.14 [open access]
Tanner, K. D. (2011). Reconsidering “what works.” CBE—Life Sciences Education, 10(4), 329–333. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.11-09-0085 [open access]
Walck, C. L. (1997). A teaching life. Journal of Management Education, 21(4), 473–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/105256299702100403