Finals week chaos continues. Again, I have little time to post -- I am hoping to have more time by Friday.
My mother and I were talking on the phone last night; she recently retired after many years of teaching philosophy at a community college in Central California. We spoke about a phenomenon we both know well, especially around this time of year: encountering former students who are eager to share with us what they still remember from our classes. It's both a flattering and disconcerting experience -- flattering because it's nice to think one has had an impact, disconcerting because what the students remember is often nothing like what one recalls having taught!
Yesterday afternoon, I was in the gym for a quick workout. A young man with vaguely recognizable features came up to me. "Professor Schwyzer?", he asked. I agreed that that was who I was (less recognizable in a t-shirt and shorts and three days of beard), and we shook hands. The young man was very nice, telling me that he had just graduated from Cal State Los Angeles, and was thinking of going into teaching high school. He told me he had always remembered something I had said in my History 1A class a few years back: that the major theme of Western Civilization is the triumph of individual ambition, and "we can do anything we want if we only set our minds to it." He said that had been very inspiring. I nodded and thanked him, wished him well, and returned to my lat pulldowns.
Except I never, ever, said anything like that. At least, I don't think I did. The last thing I would do is teach "great man" history, and I certainly would not use Alexander or Caesar Augustus as role models for how I would like my students to behave! (I'm not one of those profs who believes that Julius Caesar's tactics in conquering Gaul can translate well into the modern corporate world.) So one of us was mistaken yesterday -- either he has forgotten what I said, or I am completely in the dark as to what my students hear me say!
I can't tell you how often this happens. My beloved and I will be dining out in Pasadena, and our server will be a former student. (This has its perks, mind you -- I have gratefully accepted many a free dessert, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Free creme brulee is hard to pass up.) The server will tell my fiancee things that he or she learned in my class, usually facts or details that bear only a passing resemblance to anything I remember saying. I never correct these former students, both because it would be rude and because I think it plausible that that was in fact what they heard me say.
I've noticed that many of my students tend to project things on to their professors. Christian students often tend to think that I share their own particular theology. (I was once told, by an earnest parishioner of the infamous John MacArthur, that taking my class had made him much more certain of the "total depravity" of humanity. It remains the best back-handed compliment of my career. How else do you think I was asked to be adviser to Campus Crusade for Christ?) Gay students often think I'm in the closet. The "students for social justice" types are convinced I'm one of them. Of course, depending on my mood, I am sympathetic at times to everything from Five Point Calvinism to Frantz Fanon. It's a character flaw, I'm sure, but I think it makes for good teaching.
Look, I'm immensely flattered to be remembered. Indeed, the high I get off getting visits and emails (or even chance encounters on the street) from former students is almost embarrassing! I am just bewildered, sometimes, by what it is that they are so happy to tell me that they learned in my classes.