A Teacher's Delight: My Students Are Talking About Class Behind My Back -- But in a Good Way

I found out by accident. I had a meeting in a building across campus and one of my students had a job there staffing the reception desk. She is one of those students every professor always hopes to get: insightful, very well trained, a terrific writer, great sense of humor. She also brings personal experience in multilingualism and multiculturalism to a class on linguistic anthropology. I am hesitant to ask any individual to stand for a topic as a token so I have not completely mined her for what she could contribute, but she has lived many of the class subjects.

We chatted about this and that. And then I said something about how much there is to talk about in the class and how I feel we always run out of time. I also expressed regret that we had not spoken about her country's complex background as much as I would have liked.

"It's okay. We talk about it on our own."

What? This was something I rarely heard.

"Our table"--the classroom has an unusual configuration that I call the "dinner table" arrangement of four tables of ten--"goes out to lunch after every class (and that's three of them a week!) and we talk about the class. You should come with us sometime."

This is the Holy Grail. This is winning the teacher's lottery. This is getting a golden ticket. This is all I've ever wanted in my decades of teaching: for students to care and to want to learn the subject. I don't have any genuine stake in whether they remember the names of Sapir and Whorf or if they know what duality of patterning is, even though we talk about such things. Whether they can define language revitalization or pidgins and creoles or adjacency pairs or negative politeness or index and icon ten years from now....that is not the point. All I really want is that they become intrigued by the complexity of language and culture and the mysteries of human social interaction.

So by my own criteria, I have passed this particular course with flying colors!

I have worked hard to make this magic happen, as I have since I first realized that not all students come to class as excited about the subject as I am. From the very first day I insist on students' talking. They have group projects, small group discussions. They have to ask questions daily about the reading. The room has a certain special atmosphere that I adore. But there are also mysterious ingredients--one student with a passion, two students with particular experience--that transform a group of people going through the motions and fulfilling requirements into a tight-knit body of eager discussants. I do not claim credit for this success. The alchemy of any group of humans is beyond the analysis of THIS anthropologist.

But however it happened, I want to savor it.

So you can bet I'm going to lunch with them. And I want to listen and bask in our joint accomplishment: making something learned in school come alive with possibility and meaning.

Sometimes formal education works. And when it does, when the students are buzzing with interest in the subject, when they don't even tell the teacher about their out-of-class conversations--this is worth every moment.