Riding the Post-Tenure Tiger
T'ai Chi, teaching, and a confession of ignorance
By Kate Nickerson, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and English Department

 

 

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Academic Exchange December 1999/January 2000 Contents Page

When I received word that I had been granted tenure a year and a half ago, my feelings of elation were quickly followed by the self-terrorizing central question of middle age: what's next? I was feeling old and tired, and I was only thirty-seven. It was becoming clear to me that I had been taking the idea of the life of the mind far too seriously, intently cultivating my mental skills and acting as if having a body was simply a tragic condition to be endured. Indeed, my physical life was a source of consternation to me. In my years on the tenure track, I had developed a nasty collection of stress-related problems: migraines, a bad back, a bad stomach, asthma, phantom pains in my joints, and mysterious rashes. I had also gained more weight that I ever thought possible. What was going on below my neck? I realized I had no idea anymore.

In an attempt to reunite my brain and body, I got my nose out of my books and began taking myself to our faculty and staff gym, the Blomeyer Center. I had to overcome the host of intimidations and obstacles that any wannabe gym rat has to face: the sore muscles and stressed tendons, the tedious discipline of packing and unpacking a gym bag every day, the knowledge that you really do look like an idiot on the rowing machine, and all those piles of stinky laundry. Over the course of eight months, I lost the weight and got comfortable and confident enough in the gym to begin looking for new challenges.

I had been interested in learning T'ai Chi for years and was delighted to see an announcement that classes would begin in the Blomeyer Center--yet part of me wanted to find an excuse not to go. Something about the idea of an exercise class turned me off. I blamed it on childhood Phys Ed trauma (I have a memory of a fifth-grade volleyball game in which I was jeered by my own side after fluffing a key serve that is still so fiercely embarrassing that my palms sweat even as I type this sentence).

I came to understand, however, that what really scared me was the prospect of becoming a student of anything I wasn't certain of being good at. I suspect this is a vocational affliction for many overachieving academics, for while we talk broadly about the joys of education, what we professors specifically relish is the pleasure of knowing more about the subject at hand than anyone else in the room.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. All this history of disengagement of my mind from my body is by way of illustrating that when I decided to sign up for lessons in T'ai Chi, I was embarking on a project that I knew would be good for me, but the prospect of which caused short bursts of panic as I contemplated various scenarios of humiliation. For two weeks before the class began, I recited a little inverse affirmation: "You are allowed to be lousy at this. Your role is to be the one who is so clueless that you make everyone else feel better."

Reciting it one last time in the locker room before our first lesson, I suddenly realized that some of my students probably feel exactly the same way before the classes I teach. My classes are almost entirely verbal: we talk about words on the page, we write about words on the page, we talk about the writing we do about the words, we even drag music and images into this hothouse of linguistic reflexivity. For students not adept with academic language, such a prospect must be just as dismaying as the demand of T'ai Chi on a professor: stop talking and experience your body in motion, your mind in stillness. I was encountering the distressing reality of something I have often said in an offhand way to my own students: to learn anything, you must admit that you don't know something. What I hadn't remembered was how utterly vulnerable the position of the student feels, especially when you have no prior assurance that you will learn the new skill or material easily and move into the much more pleasurable zone of mastery.

Making myself into a nervous student made me keenly aware of my dependency on the instructor, and luckily, I was being taught T'ai Chi by Michael Dillard, one of the smartest and most gentle teachers I have ever met. In studying this martial art, you are ultimately discovering a whole new way of imagining your body in time and space, but more immediately memorizing a sequence of linked postures called a form. The work required to learn T'ai Chi is internal and mental as much as it is physical. I have known other teachers who believe, like me, that students only learn what they discover for themselves, but I have never met one who is such a careful monitor of his students' learning process.

Sifu Dillard describes three kinds of learning: visual (learning by watching the teacher), kinetic (learning by performing the exercises), and verbal (learning through descriptive metaphorical instructions). He urges us to figure out what mix of the three makes up our own learning style. He is also careful to avoid the discouragement that can come from contemplating the intricacy of T'ai Chi by layering the lessons, so that we learn the broad strokes of a posture first and fill in detail slowly over subsequent weeks and months.

Of course, despite giving myself permission to be mediocre, I was extremely anxious at the beginning that I would never get it at all. Over the first few months, I discovered I could begin to learn T'ai Chi only when I relaxed and accepted the
traditional wisdom that it is an art to be learned very slowly, in the progressive way my teacher understood. I also realized that I couldn't learn it just by attending the weekly lesson. I need to practice on my own (kinetic learning) with my teacher's instructive voice in my head (verbal learning). For me, the real trick is concentrating on finding all the things I don't understand (how do I get from this posture to that posture? which hand is on top in this gesture?) so that I know what to focus on in my Sifu's next lesson. While it is practically impossible to think about anything other than the demands of the moment while you are doing T'ai Chi (shift your weight to the left foot, bring your left arm back, bring your right hand across your face), you can mull things over afterwards. I realize I am discerning larger lessons about the yin and yang of learning: that mastery comes only through the daily practice of admitting deficiency, and that you can only become someone's student by becoming your own teacher.

This very direct experience of the union of opposites is going to shape my teaching over the next few years. I have a new sense of a responsibility to guide students into, through, and out of the productive but uncomfortable stage of confessed ignorance and to reacquaint them with the sheer pleasure of learning new things. To that end, I'm trying to figure out how to apply the techniques of layered lessons to my classes in reading texts and writing about them. I'm also taking what I've learned about teaching styles directly to my students, urging them to think about how they learn and stressing self-tutoring as a life-long necessity. In essence, I've learned that every student must be a little bit of a teacher, and every teacher must be a little bit of a student. But the most powerful yin-yang irony is that in trying to rebel against the life of the mind and my identity as tenured professor, I learned inadvertently how to be a better teacher.

Kate Nickerson is an associate professor in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and the English department. She is the current recipient of the Award for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities from the Center for Teaching and Curriculum.