My Teaching Day: A Topography

I teach on Mondays and Wednesdays this semester, I am on campus all day, I have a morning class, an afternoon class and a late afternoon class. I have two breaks between classes that I attempt to fill with productive activity. More often than not I fail to do so.

I rise early in the morning, I creep around trying to minimize noise despite the explicit permission to disregard such efforts. I was raised to be quiet when others are sleeping. I make coffee (two cups, French press, cream, no sugar), I read a bit, I look out of my window, I think about my classes, I think that it is about time I should be leaving the house, I get distracted, I am going to be late. I bike to the train station, I join my fellow travelers on the platform, I recognize faces, I move slighty to the left to be right at the door when the train comes, I board the train. 

I arrive on campus about ten minutes before my morning class, I walk to the building, I enter the classroom, I greet students, I move the occasionally oddly positioned chair out of my way. This classroom has windows, I open one to let in some air, I open the blinds, I attempt at cheerfulness, I utter a humorous remark, I look at my watch. It is time.  I teach. I gesticulate. I explain things, I write things on the board. I gesticulate more, I think about talking slower and with less enthusiasm, I must save energy to last through the whole period. I get tired. I hear shuffling of bags, I look at my watch, I end teaching.

The break between my morning class and my afternoon class is not long, but it is eventful. I read, I grab an early lunch, I roam the campus. I cannot work, read, think or simply be in an isolated silent enclosed space. I need to be out, I need to see people move about, I need a place to stare into space. I like new places, but I also like old places, I recognize them, I remember what book I read here and what I have thought about it there, places come together to make my day. I cannot sit in one place, I need to move. I know campus well, I visit places I like. There’s an especially comfortable chair at a coffee shop across the street, I feel a pinch of frustration if it is occupied, I give the intruder a stern look, I judge him to be ultimately unworthy of my chair. I visit colleagues, I chit and I chat. I go to my favorite set of tables under a large shady tree, I will most likely run into some of my students there, but today I do not mind it, today is a nice cool day to sit outside, to read.

I go to my afternoon class, I educate, I leave. I have a long break now, I leave campus, I go to a bookstore where I read. I buy that coffee I resisted all day, it makes my head hurt, I put down my “serious book” and pick up whatever they have on display for “most recent non-fiction,” I read about Suleiman the Magnificent, I like it. I close my eyes, I think about my day, I head back to campus. I teach yet again, I take a train home.

I hate routine, but I suspect that it is only because I have never had the chance to develop one. I have neither patience nor concentration for real academic work, I don’t finish a book if I don’t like it, I don’t like doing things because I have to, but because I have to, I do them and I don’t like it.  I like teaching, but I suspect that it is only because I have never had the patience to try anything else. I am lucky to be teaching, as I have no real talent for anything else.  I like the places where I teach, I like being in the places of teaching, I like places in general.

11 thoughts on “My Teaching Day: A Topography

  1. I hope you did not write this so that some poor sap like me would rush to say your students are damned lucky to have such an interesting, insightful and (I would guess) entertaining guy for a teacher. But, nonetheless, they are.

  2. Regarding Suleiman the Magnificent, his Fleet Admiral was the legendary privateer Barbarossa. An account of one of Barbarossa’s exploits, the siege of Eze, is excerpted from Treves’ The Riviera of the Corniche Road:

    IN August, 1548, the citadel of Nice was besieged by the French army of Francis I aided by the Turkish fleet under the command of the corsair Barbarossa. The siege failed as has been already recounted (page 29). The next obvious step for the French was to attack and destroy Eze, which lay behind Nice and was an obstacle to any further progress. It is necessary to realise that —at this period—both Nice and Eze were beyond the frontiers of France, were foreign towns and, at the moment, enemy towns.

    The Turkish fleet, supplemented by many French galleys, accordingly set sail for the Bay of Eze, carrying ¡with it irregular troops, both French and Turkish, to the number, it is said, of 2,000. Now Barbarossa, being a finished pirate of ripe experience, would be aware that the taking of Eze from the sea was—as a military project —quite impossible. Eze stood on a cone of rock 1,400 feet above the level of the Mediterranean and could only be reached from the shore by a narrow path which was actually precipitous. To bring cannon to bear upon the town from any point, high or low, on either side of it, was impracticable. It could only be taken by a body of infantry and to the attacks of such a force Eze was impregnable.

    Still Redbeard the pirate sailed on with complete content. He was not only content ; he was happy. He had a treasure in his galley, a treasure in the form of a man who was probably sitting alone in the pirate’s cabin, deep in thought. Barbarossa would take a peep at him now and then, rub his hands and smile. The name of this man was Gaspard de Caïs and he was one of the most poisonous scoundrels that had ever lived. He was a native of the country the admiral was proceeding to invade. He was a loathsome traitor who had gone over to the French and, for a certain sum, had engaged to betray his country and the town of Eze together with friends among whom he had spent his youth. The bribe might have been large but, valued as a really corrupt ruffian, Gaspard was beyond price.

    When the Bay of Eze was reached this sneaking hound was landed with a few French and Italian soldiers— Italian because they spoke a language more akin to the speech of Eze. Barbarossa would like to have kicked the knave off the boat but he was not a censor of morals and he wanted to take the town.

    De Caïs and his small company proceeded to climb up to Eze. It was September and, therefore, one of the hottest months of the year. What with the heat and the burden of his conscience Gaspard must have found the ascent trying ; for even in modern times with a modern path the clamber up to the town from the shore is a feat of endurance that the hardiest tourist will scarcely undertake twice.

    In due course the perspiring traitor reached the gate of Eze—the identical gate that stands before the entrance of the town to this day. He would be stopped by the guard and asked his business. Mopping his face he would reply, with a smile, that he wished a word with the governor. After some delay the governor, attended by an officer or two, appeared and Gaspard, greeting him as an old comrade, whispered in his ear that the Turkish fleet was in the Bay and would attempt to take the town. This was possibly the only time that Gaspard ever spoke the truth* ; for, in fact, the fleet was below and the admiral did undoubtedly desire to capture the town. De Caïs then lapsed into lying which became him better. He explained that as a patriot and a lover of Eze he had come to warn the governor of the peril ahead and to place his poor services and those of his humble followers at the disposal of the garrison. ” Would he come in? ” He came in.

    Now it must be explained that Gaspard had as a friend and co-partner in crime no less a person than his fellow countryman, the Lord of Gorbio. This prince was known by the unpleasing name of the Bastard of Gorbio for he was a disreputable scion of the noble house of Grimaldi. He was, if possible, a more contemptible rogue than Gaspard. He had confederates in Eze and a number of traitorous men in his pay hidden among the rocks about the entrance.

    As soon as Gaspard de Caïs and his companions were well within the gate they suddenly drew their swords and, with a shout, fell like madmen upon the unsuspecting guard who were still standing at attention. This was a signal to the Bastard and to his friends within and without the town. These worthies all rushed to the gate and in a few moments the governor and the gallant guard of Eze were dead or dying.

    All this time the Turks, in single file, were crawling up the zigzag path from the boats, like a great brown serpent, a mile long, gliding up out of the water. They poured in through the gate, panting and yelling, and continued to pour in for hours. Barbarossa now could laugh aloud and did no doubt guffaw heartily enough for Eze the impregnable was taken with scarcely the loss of a man.

    What followed is, in the language of novelists, “better imagined than described ” ; simply because it is easy to imagine but difficult to describe.

    Eze the betrayed became the scene of a blurred orgy of house burning, murder and pillage. The town with all that Was in it was to be wiped off the face of the earth. The order could not have been carried out more thoroughly or more heartily if it had been executed by the Germans of the present day. There was no resistance. There was to be no quarter and no prisoners. Everything went ” according to plan.”

    If you’ve made it this far you’ll note that I bolded the two passages, both referring to the precipitous trail leading from the sea up to the hilltop town of Eze. The gateway where the trail enters into the town of Eze is marked with a plaque commemorating Barbarossa’s invasion. Here’s a photo of the town — as you can see, it’s a pretty steep climb.

    And now, finally, to philosophy: It was while ascending this very trail that Nietzsche envisioned the third section of Zarathustra. The trail is now marked as The Philosopher’s Path in Nietzsche’s honor.

    “Now as Zarathustra was climbing the mountains he thought how often since his youth he had wandered alone and how many mountains and ridges and peaks he had already climbed. I am a wanderer and a mountain climber, he said to his heart.”

  3. Great post. I really relate to the wandering around during teaching days, and to this: “I hate routine, but I suspect that it is only because I have never had the chance to develop one. I have neither patience nor concentration for real academic work, I don’t finish a book if I don’t like it, I don’t like doing things because I have to, but because I have to, I do them and I don’t like it. “

  4. It’s no slight to Suleiman the Magnificent to say that I really enjoyed your essay Mikhail.

    Beautifully constructed. The use of an impressionistic style to report in a very non-specific way (building up to “I like places in general”) is really very nice, as is the deft combination of generalities and specificities (Suleiman again).

    One of the strangest aspects of teaching is how dissociative it can be. Part of you is completely engaged in the material but another part is sort of passively witnessing the whole thing. That part of you may feel like an asshole or a fraud. Who am I to tell other people stuff? But your body is in performance mode, just doing its thing. Then you march across campus and get on to the next bit of the day, reading about Suleiman for the ten thousandth time.

    Maybe repetition does this to everything though.

    • Thanks, Jon. I was partially inspired by Dylan Trigg’s book on aesthetics of decay I was reading that day (content-wise, not style-wise). I got it through ILL and decided to give it a shot and sort of proceeded to read it all day between classes.

      I don’t really mind repetition as much as I thought I would when I first started teaching (some time ago now that I think about it). I thought that teaching the same subject for many years would be horrible burden, but I have to thank my memory for giving me the gift of forgetfulness, each year I pick up the same books (switch them around, you know, but basically it’s the same canon), read them again and again and I like them, because I forgot everything I’ve known about them over the summer. I think I have horrible memory when it comes to books, unless I underline or write things down, they are gone as soon as I close the book.

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