I suppose the pump was already being primed. I’ve been writing and administering and grading exams this week, and a couple of days ago I read this post at Blographia Literaria about the various kinds of regret caused by reading. (A good post it is, too.) Maybe it was also the generally good group of students I’ve had this semester in my classes, British Literature I (survey to 1660) and British Novel I (upper-division, to 1837). But I’ve been feeling especially melancholy at the end of this semester.

Writing an exam always forces me to reexamine the books I’ve taught. Not only do I always make some connections that I hadn’t made before–that macro-view of the book can be illuminating–but I always regret something about the way I’ve handled the class. I find myself wishing I’d made things more explicit, or asked a better question, or led the discussion this way rather than that. I always end up writing imperious little notes to myself while I’m writing an exam: “Do this next time! Don’t forget this!” Perhaps we can steal a trick from Kant and call that the pedagogical imperative: the dream of pedagogical perfection that persists even when my post- (or pre-?) Enlightenment ontology of teaching resists those kinds of teleological absolutes. The counterpoint to exam writing can seem like syllabus writing, when my thoughts are more absorbed by the subject matter. Writing an exam concentrates my thoughts on the human subjects that are going to be taking it, which is what leads me to reflect on my shortcomings. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a day in class, a book, a semester, without wishing I had just a little more time, the chance to say one more thing–quite literally, I nearly always run a minute or two past the end of the class.

But the real counterpoint to the melancholy of exam writing is the felix interlocutor: the student who takes all these incomplete materials and makes them into something better than what was (and was not) said in class. It’s a bracing counterpoint to the melancholy of exam writing to read something that makes one say: “That’s good! And I didn’t teach it. That’s real thinking going on there.” Socrates called this being a midwife to other people’s ideas, and it’s pretty satisfying without being at all ego-driven. Maybe that’s why it’s one of the best things about teaching. It’s certainly better than writing a syllabus.

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