The other day, at the end of a class I had thought long and hard about, a student walked past me and purposefully said “Thanks, that was very interesting.” I had to do a double-take and I said, “sorry?” – – just to be sure I heard right. Yes, the student repeated what I thought I had heard: “Thanks, that was very interesting.”
Now maybe it’s how I teach or what I teach or maybe it’s something else, but in the six years I’ve been teaching full-time here in Maynooth, I’ve rarely heard a student say something like this. Sure, I get the odd nod as a student leaves the classroom, sort of a “thanks” which is maybe just a “see ya”; and I don’t doubt that some students sometimes enjoy what they encounter in my classes. But still, I have to admit that as I walked to the train station that evening I had a good bit of bounce in my step. “That was nice,” I thought. And it was.
And it made me think about how many other lecturers like me plod on and on, trying hard to improve what we’re doing; finding new articles or better books to assign; calculating what might work better in the classroom; trying pretty much desperately at times to overcome that sense that what we’re doing isn’t all that great, needs to improve, could’ve been sharper, clearer, more theoretical, more empirical, etc. And it also made me wonder how many other lecturers like me ever get a “thanks” at the end of their classes. And finally it made me want to make an appeal to students, not just my students but students in general to give that wee bit of extra acknowledgement (only if it’s deserved, of course!). Go on, say “thanks”!
However, as I was dwelling on all this, it also occurred to me that maybe I need to give a bit more praise. It’s so easy to find faults with the work we see from students, often just as we’re forgetting that we weren’t that great when we were 2nd or 3rd years, or, as in my case – I humbly admit – as postgraduate students. It’s also so easy to just identify the mistakes, the limited grasp, the apparent lack of effort or attention, and so on. But do we balance that with praise? Do we say “thanks, that was very well done” enough? I know my sister – a real teacher is how I see her, because she does it day-in, day-out in a far more intense high school environment than what I face – says “sandwich the criticism between the praise” and indeed some of the most generous readers of my work, as it moves from sketchy draft to sketchy final version, do exactly the same. What I have been forced to reflect upon is the need to do that more.
And this brings me to a final issue. At the AAG conference in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I heard two people say quite similar things in very different sessions. One was Paul Cloke, a geographer in Exeter, UK. In a session titled something like Urban Theory for the 21st Century, Paul made a call for a bit more humility, a bit less arrogance in our statements, pleas, calls, and arguments. I liked that. He was right. As was someone else, Scott Prudham at the University of Toronto, who was talking about Neil Smith’s impact on the discipline. One thing Scott noted was just how nice Neil was. He noted that not enough of us are nice to each other. We’re cocky, smart-arses, mean (I don’t think he used those exact words, mind you; but I’m sure they’ve been used to refer to me, I’m not proud to say). And I liked that, too.
I think the same sort of ethos towards others and the labour they perform around us can go a long way to making better, more productive social relations that in turn can make a better world. I for one am committed to trying harder in this regard. And so I thank that student who came up to me after class and said “Thanks, that was very interesting” for reminding me of how important that ethos is at all levels of the workplaces in which I meet others.