The Joyful Task of Teaching
Published in The Cresset, Advent Christmas 2015
I was asked to teach at the local university recently. A unique combination of their desperation and my availability brought me to the land of Academia, for the first time as a provider, rather than as a consumer, of knowledge. The course was Contemporary Urban Issues. This was the career path I did not take; instead, I followed a call to ordained ministry. I was delighted to rekindle my love affair with cities. I had visions of teaching my forty undergrads the intricacies of Tax Increment Financing, and the impact of zoning codes on America’s built environment and waistlines. I was determined to show the students how urban issues are manifest in our community. I also wanted them to get off campus and participate in the wider community. I asked the class to bring their student ID’s and to wear comfortable shoes to the second day of class. I took them on a field trip through downtown Oshkosh. Just off campus we stopped in front of an apartment house. “Who lives here?” I asked. “Students.” “How do you know?” “There’s three bikes chained to the porch railing, two hibachis under the porch, and beer cans everywhere.” “See, you know a lot about a place, just by looking at it. I want you to start to really see the world around you.” We stopped in front of the next house, a well-maintained, single-family dwelling, with a freshly cut and edged yard. “Who lives here?” I asked again. “People.” was the response from a brave soul in the back. We wound our way through the city.
Then we stopped in front of a true Oshkosh landmark, The Grand Opera House. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, the only such building which also once housed a pornographic movie house. In a small city, one takes distinction where one finds it. We concluded our field trip at the city bus center, and after showing our ID’s boarded the bus free. We took the bus a little less than a mile back to campus. I was pleased that only a handful of the students had ever ridden public transportation before. Ninety percent of them came from Wisconsin, many from small towns. I could see their horizons expanding. The third day of class I had them share their hometowns. As a fourth-generation resident of Peoria, Illinois, I understand being a little sensitive and defensive about one’s hometown. I wanted to model respect for all places, even the smallest hamlet. One boy, I’ll call him Kyle, (I’m pretty sure every boy on campus was named Kyle that year; and all the girls were named Ashley.) was from Wild Rose, a settlement of 700 souls, about forty miles west of Oshkosh. I seized the teachable moment.
“Kyle,” I asked, “Why are taxes in Waushara County so much lower than taxes here in Winnebago County?”
“What do you do with your garbage back home?”
“Take it to the dump.”
“Right. So you don’t have to pay for garbage collectors, garbage trucks, workers’ comp for garbage collectors. What kind of plastic can you recycle in Waushara County?”
“All kinds, I guess.”
“That’s right. Even though you live in a rural county, you can recycle plastics 1 through 6 in Waushara County.“ I turned to the rest of the class. “What kind of plastic can we recycle here, in big, urban Winnebago County?” No one knew. This is the greenest generation? I was stunned. I’ve got forty young people, all of them drinking bottled water or Mountain Dew out of plastic and they do not even know how to dispose of their bottles in the county where they live? Just for a minute, I became the fanatical, single-issue zealot professor that students imitate for years. “1 and 2! 1 and 2! In Winnebago County we can only recycle two kinds of plastic. In Waushara County, even though they do not have garbage pick up they can recycle 1 through 6! You should know this! You all live in this county now!” I am getting only blanks stares at this point. “I’m putting that on the midterm!” I shout. And with the choreography of a Michael Jackson video, every head is bowed over a notebook writing “Recycle 1 and 2 for midterm.” I have never felt such power. For the rest of the semester, anytime I felt their attention fading, I would say, “I’m putting that on the midterm/final.” My exams wrote themselves.
As a teacher I had a lot to learn.
In an effort to get the students off campus, I let them make up missed classes by attending off campus events: going to Farmers’ Market, visiting the downtown merchants’ monthly Gallery Walk, giving blood. One student went to a publicity stunt that the local food pantry held. In an effort to gather paper products for needy people, they tried to build the world’s largest toilet paper pyramid. He took a picture of himself at the event, with the caption “This is how I roll.”
One day Ashley approached me after class. “Um... Mr. Willadsen, you know how you said we’d get attendance credit for doing things off campus?”
“Well, I missed class Tuesday because I was placing a restraining order on my roommate.”
“So do I get credit for a make-up?”
“Ashley, maybe getting to Contemporary Urban Issues isn’t your biggest problem. But OK, I’ll give you the make up.”
About halfway into the semester I asked whether students were taking the bus. “It’s free! Just show your ID!” Having been raised by a survivor of the Depression, something being free is all the motivation I ever need to use it.
“Mr. Willadsen, the bus never stops when I want it to.”
“Do you pull the cord?”
“The cord that makes the bell ring, and the lighted sign come on that says ‘Stop requested.’”
“You can do that?”
“Sure! The bus drivers want to drop you off where you want to get off. And they’ll even stop for just one person.” I head to the chalk board and draw a crude picture of the inside of the bus and where cords can be found to signal the driver. “Guess I’ll put this on the final,” I added, just for the illusion of power this comment gave me.
At the end of a long semester I found myself grading final exams. This was not the joyful task I imagined it to be. I was more disappointed in what my students had not learned than I was pleased at what they had. Toward the bottom of the pile was Ashleigh’s final. In a fit of desperation she defined “TIF” as “Think I’m failing.” I laughed out loud and that was a huge gift. I gave her credit for a correct answer. Besides, she now knew how to signal the bus driver to request a stop. Maybe she had the tools to explore the city on her own, I reasoned.
As a teacher, I had learned a lot.
Following his semester as a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, the Reverend Tom Willadsen returned full time to serving as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, where the congregation never mimics the choreography of a Michael Jackson video.