Tuesday, June 17, 2008
My Dr. Phil and Teaching
I began creative writing when I learned how to read. One of my many aspirations as a teen was to be a writer, a novelist and/or journalist. I still may be a novelist some day but don't hold your breath. When I got to university, I took a creative writing course that wasn't part of my regular studies. I was only 17 but soon realized that I wouldn't be able to support myself as a writer. I had some minor talent but didn't have the discipline.
The course that I took was led by my very own Dr. Phil. I've mentioned him before. I eventually took an English course from him as well. It's kind of funny that my favourite profs were not related to my field of study. (Another favoured English prof I had once accidently poisoned an old boyfriend with a seafood casserole, but that's a whole other post)
Anyway, 24 years go by and I mention Dr. Phil in my blog. Then I sent him a note, reintroducing myself and pointing him in the direction of his mention on the blog and warning him of the soon to be stampeding crowds of papparazzi to his front door. Of course that didn't happen (the crowds, that is) but Dr. Phil and I have begun e-mail correspondence. Originally from the states, and transplanted into a very tiny rural community, I looked at him (as I did with all my profs, actually) as larger than life, with an infinite amount of wisdom, and the power to make or break me as a student. I still felt that way upon graduation, fearing the university would say to me as I got on stage to accept my degree, "You haven't learned enough. This is a mistake."
Sometimes I don't feel like I'm an adult. I often joke that I'm still only 3 years old as I maintain a sense of wonder about much of the world. If I grow up completely I'm afraid I'll lose that sense of wonder. But one thing that has made me feel a little more grown up in recent months is the e-mails I've been exchanging with Dr. Phil.
It turns out that Dr. Phil and I have a few things in common. We both have our own health issues to deal with and we both love biking. We are both passionate people, though about different things (and so it should be). It's one thing to grow as an individual in the presence of parents and other family members, but it seems very different to suddenly appear in someone's life again as a fully formed adult and be treated as such, not as a naive student. In an earlier post I talked about a young woman named Jessica. It is a joy to watch a young person learn and grow. Actually, anyone, no matter the age, is a joy to watch as something is learned and understood. That's what I enjoyed about tutoring adults at a local Literacy Centre, the "lightbulb" moments when something to do with geometry made sense or explaining punctuation in terms of traffic rules making it easier for my student to comprehend.
It turns out that humans are the only animals that make a concerted effort to teach others. All other animals "teach" their young by instinct, or the animal's behaviour is directed by chemicals. But for some reason, humans teach and know they are teaching, and continue to teach in even the most exasperating situations. We seem to want or need to impart little bits of info to others. Apes teach other apes by accident. They don't hover over their young and offer encouragement if the baby tries to do something. We do. Apes learn by trial and error and by watching and imitating. We do that as well, but we also learn by sharing information with each other, analyzing it, and then applying it. And it occurs in all societies at all levels, whether it's me as a 5 year old teaching my brother to tie his shoelaces or my mom teaching my father how to make biscuits, or it's Dr. Phil explaining the meaning of a story by Philip Roth.
Why do we like to teach other people? I suspect the answer is rather complicated, but on a very basic level has to do with teachers receiving positive reinforcement for successfully conveying an idea to a student. Yes, I'm a bit of a behaviourist. Think about it, though. A student's face lights up with understanding and it triggers a flush of warm fuzzies in the teacher. It may have taken hours, days, or weeks, but the positive reinforcement arrives in the form of the warm fuzzies. Sometimes the reinforcement is a paycheque or tenure. Even in non-traditional teaching situations, there is some form of reinforcement for the teacher.
But we also seem to have an "instinct" that drives us to teach others. Whether it's a drug dealer grooming an underling to do business or a mother and her child, there's something that drives us to teach. Animals don't have that drive. They can learn but they don't teach. But as much as I enjoyed my volunteer tutoring, I enjoy learning even more. I crave knowledge about a host of topics and I can get lost for hours on the net going from one subject to another. My learning is life long and non stop and I maintain a sense of wonder about the world around me. I suspect that my Dr. Phil feels the same way.