Adam’s Big Think #3: What is Teaching?

By Adam Katz

photo courtesy of

Last month was a lot. We in the Ivory Tower Boiler Room are justifiably proud of our continuous coverage of Pride Month. And just because the month is over doesn’t mean our queerness and allyship, respectively, are over.

This month’s theme at the Ivory Tower Boiler Room is public scholarship, with an emphasis on teaching. What is public scholarship? In short, when Andrew gives a lecture to his undergraduates or writes an article for a trade journal like English Literary History, that’s scholarship. When we make a podcast or write a blog post, that’s public scholarship. It’s a matter of where you’re sharing the information, and why.

One thing the four of us–Adam, Mary, Erika and Andrew–have in common is that teaching is a huge part of our lives in one form or another, from Andrew’s lectures at various museums and libraries to Mary’s nannying and her relationships with other writers, to Erika’s social work and also her current gig as a mother, to Adam’s various teaching and tutoring jobs. So let’s kick July off with something simple. Each Big Think this month will answer the question: what does teaching mean to me? And, because we’re coming up on our one-year anniversary, we will be unable to avoid talking about how this blog and this podcast have helped us to grow as teachers.

And in the comments sections, we would love for you to share with us your answer to either or both of the following questions

  1. What does teaching mean to you?
  2. What is one of your proudest moments as a teacher? Obviously it doesn’t have to say ‘teacher’ on your tax return; there are lots of types of teachers.

So. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject of education. Sometimes I’m in the mood to take one idea and just poke at it, but at present I’m more of a mind to go through a bunch of different ideas too quickly to do any of them justice.


Item the first. For some reason, I often think back to this one psychology class I took, freshman year at Columbia, in which the professor said: “Every science has a theoretical discipline and an engineering discipline. So what is the engineering discipline of psychology?”

Pause for responses. Someone raised their hand and said: “therapy?”

The instructor nodded and said: “Sure. But there’s an even bigger one.”

Pause again for responses. Barely a sound in a lecture of more than a hundred.

Finally, the professor said: “Education.” 

It’s now been a bit more than fifteen years since that class, and I wonder why it stuck in my mind the way it did. I also wonder if he’s right. Part of the problem with his answer is that it’s a cheat. Psychology is part of everything; mathematicians and computer programmers who work with other people must also incorporate psychology into their work; politics and economics could reasonably be described as engineering disciplines of psychology. But he’s also not wrong. The way you actually help to shape a person’s mind–or at least not get in the way of how it wants to shape itself–is through teaching, no matter the venue.

I guess it breaks down to what you think of as ‘teaching.’ There’s how to teach, and there’s what to teach. The latter isn’t really governed by psychology, unless you are teaching psychology; the former more-or-less is. This is turning into me listing grievances against an offhand comment some professor made during the Bush administration. But another thing that bothers me about what he said is that it leads to overthinking. A lot of people teach just fine without knowing their profession is the engineering discipline of psychology; whereas how many mechanical engineers don’t know that their work is related to physics? And as a rule, a teacher is unlikely to think: ‘what is the correct psychological principle at work here?’ when they’re teaching; they’re more likely to think: ‘how to get through to this person?’ 

 It turns out that a lot of the qualities that make a good teacher are the same qualities that make a good person:
-Read a lot.
-Take things slow; give instructions and explanations at the other person’s pace, not your own; and in a way designed to reach the other person, not necessarily in the way that feels comfortable for yourself.
-Try to be honest, both factually and emotionally.
-Be willing to change your mind. Be open to learning, both in and out of the classroom.
-Guard your down-time.
-Above all, believe in people more than in rules.
-Always be willing to add to the list.

It’s possible that my biggest misgiving with the idea of education as applied psychology is that it depends on what education is for. I went to college to learn stuff; to grow as a person; to find out what I wanted to do with my life. Psychology aplenty in those reasons. A lot of people go to school to meet the right sort of people; to break into a higher socio-economic set; or, as the case may be, to confirm themselves in a higher socio-economic set. I remember being at college and meeting fellow-students who were dogmatically set in their opinions and thinking: already? You’re already calcified? You poor idiot. I wasn’t that charitable in my opinions of other people back then. But I stand by that one. 

Item the third. The one thing I think every good teacher has in common is the wish to divorce issues of education from issues of economics. Too many students fail at school, or go to the wrong school, or never make it to school at all, simply because they can’t afford what they need. 

Item the fourth. Too many schools teach one thing with their books and another with their actions. One example should suffice. While I was in college, my alma mater used methods both fair and foul to enact a wholesale takeover of the Manhattanville neighborhood in West Harlem, just north of campus. The very same year I was learning from my Contemporary Civilizations professor about how John Rawls argued that one should treat other people as if one had been born into their circumstances, I was learning from Columbia’s administrators that it’s fine to pay millions in legal fees to get an area labeled ‘blighted’ so that you can buy it up through eminent domain, displacing the longtime residents and their businesses, all in the name of progress. The really messed up part was that Columbia was the landlord for much of the area when they got it labeled ‘blighted.’ So whose fault was the blight? I can’t think of an event that shaped my growth as a teacher more than watching from atop my little hill, powerless to stop the bulldozer of progress from flattening the supposed blight of working-poor and lower-middle-class families of color.

Item the fifth. Gleaned from years of teaching English to non-native speakers. Something I’ve been hearing a lot online lately that has put a bee in my bonnet. I know that poor people and PoC can speak for themselves; but they shouldn’t always have to, so here is your daily reminder that:
-African American Vernacular English
-Indian Standard English and other varieties and dialects
-English as spoken by immigrants, et al.
are perfectly grammatically correct in their respective contexts, and maybe stop making fun of how poor ppl and PoC talk under the guise of correcting people’s grammar. Or just go for it. Keep policing all the variety and spontaneity out of the language; insist that there’s exactly one way to speak English; actively make people feel bad for having a less prestigious education than you. Just the way people in the 1400s-1700s did with Latin. And then Latin faded and died, which I’m sure is just a coincidence. And yes, the fact that none of the sentences in this paragraph is grammatically correct, but the overall effect is still perfectly intelligible, was done by design.

Ok, where were we?

Item the sixth. The use of education as a social climbing tool (however understandable) is only the most unfortunate aspect of the truism that it’s not what you know, but who you know. There are more positive aspects of that truism. If you learn little or nothing from a class, but you make a friend, one could argue you have succeeded beyond the most difficult and exacting standards of the course.

courtesy of

An anecdote. I took two music theory classes with Roger, better known as the chorus teacher in my high school. To this day I can rattle off the different inversions of a 7th-chord; and western classical music, from Bach to Shostakovich, is still my go-to genre and time-period. But I value those classes, not for any particular thing I learned, but for the conversations he and I had over Chinese takeout, or the time things were getting serious between me and the woman I was seeing, and Roger was the one I went to for advice. Or the time Roger had to go to the hospital for an emergency surgery and I was the person he picked to be the substitute teacher in all of his music theory classes. I was 17 and it was both my first teaching gig and my first music gig. Or the time, during the darkest part of the pandemic, when I discovered that a piece Roger had written while I was in high school had received its most brilliant and sensitive performance in Korean translation. Listening to it brought me back to that year, 2001-2002. If I close my eyes, I can still see the haze that hung over the southern Manhattan skyline for months. I can still hear the drumbeat of war, abetted by opportunism in the media. Persian people in my town were being screamed at nonsensically: “go back where you came from!” If I had not been able to sit in chorus and make harmonies, and sing things that helped me process my feelings, I think the panic and uncertainty would have crushed me.

Barbara Jeanne Fields, one of my professors at Columbia. When I picture the word ‘teacher,’ this is one of the faces that comes to mind. Photo from

So no. These are not idle thoughts. Teaching is a matter of life and death, and which kind of education you get, whether it’s the kind that teaches you to love learning and questions and connections for their own sake or the kind that teaches you to hobnob with the right people so you can get a cushy job when you graduate…those are matters of life and death, too. Part of why I like doing what I do for the blog and the podcast is: it feels like driving a truck past the cold networking of an Ivy League institution and back to what networking should be: people with overlapping interests getting together to talk about things that make them better people; things that may even make the world a better place.

Item the seventh. For me, the pinnacle of teaching is editing. Don’t get me wrong; I love to write. I love to share my work. But when Erika wrote her personal history of the AIDS epidemic I can’t imagine I could have been any prouder of that piece if I had written it myself; especially when the compliments from distant acquaintances started pouring in. For me, editing combines the best of writing and teaching. When I edit a piece, it feels as though I am helping a person achieve the best version, not only of their writing, but of themselves. This feeling relates back to the belief I shared earlier: that most of what is required to be a good teacher overlaps with what is required to be a good person. And I like trying to be a good person, and sharing my time with people who are trying to be good people.

It took the pandemic to make me realize this about myself: that I do actually like spending time with people. 

Ok, with some people. 

Some of the time. 

I had spent the last few years in a demon-rush to finish my dissertation. Then I was equally driven to put out a work of scholarship so that I could start applying for jobs at the university level. But somewhere along the way I stopped and thought to ask myself what I actually wanted. The answer surprised me a little bit. I don’t hold any particular animosity for people who go the traditional scholarly route; jealousy, perhaps. But the upshot is that for the first time (*checks notes*) ever, I’m where I need to be. As more readers and writers incorporate our site into their lives, we will naturally have more for me to edit; more people for me to talk to about writing; more people’s finished writing for me to read and share and kvell over. And, hopefully, people for me to nerd out with about Spenser and Marlowe and T. H. White. I can’t imagine anything better.

Postscriptum: Reading over what I have written, one observation I will make is that my thinking has become a lot more positive in the last few months. It’s sufficiently noticeable in my writing as to warrant comment from my colleagues, so imagine how vertiginous, how sudden, how painful, at times, has been the change as I have experienced it, firsthand. I think the change comes from the need to be contrary; a certain stubborn individualism, for better or, more frequently, for worse, has not ceased to be a mainstay of my personality since I was two, much less since I was thirty-two. But what does a contrarian do when living through the literal apocalypse? The answer; my answer, is apparently to smile.

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