I. The semester is just beginning at universities all across the country. As classes open and faculty development programs launch, a familiar specter from the hallowed halls of popular culture begins to lurk: the ghost of John Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society. But it’s not so much the character itself who does the haunting (although the idea of a frenetic Williams running back and forth is a bit terrifying) as much as it is the idea of what the character represents. Mr. Keating has become a symbol for the inspiring teacher who changes students’ lives, who makes their lives mean more by having taught them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but in the process of becoming more of a representative abstraction the image of Keating has had an impact on our perceptions of teaching.
II. True Story #1: I have wanted to teach since I was 5 years old. My sister tells a funny story about how I tried to teach her to read when she had reached the advanced age of 3 by giving her one of my Hardy Boys books and a dictionary, telling her that she should look up any words she didn’t know. We didn’t get very far. So it was that my first foray in fostering experiential learning ended in a dismal failure. Undaunted, though, I continued to pursue my goal of teaching.
True Story #2: I was 12 when I saw Dead Poets Society, and it struck me in a profound way. For the first time, I had a framework into which I could place my desire to be a teacher and a language I could use to speak about it. I wanted to inspire students, I would tell people. Inspiration became my goal, and it was a dominant lens through which I viewed teaching.
True Story #3: I went to graduate school at the University of Connecticut. Shortly after I began my program, I met Sam Pickering, one of the faculty members in the English department. Sam, it turns out, had once taught in a private school in Nashville, and–although he only worked at the school for one year–his teaching greatly influenced a student named Tom Schulman, who would go on to write the screenplay for Dead Poets Society. Schulman has credited Sam with being the model for Mr. Keating.
III. Given all of this background and my current position as a director of a center for teaching and learning, you might think that I would be a Keating evangelist, spreading the word about inspiration wherever I go, right? Definitely not. I freely, and unabashedly, admit that the film stoked my desires to be a teacher in unquantifiable ways, and I will always be very grateful for that. But as an instructor myself and as someone who works with faculty and graduate students who do the hard work of teaching in their classroom, labs, and offices, I recognize the difficulties posed by the ghost of Mr. Keating. The potential danger of the Keating figure is that teaching comes to be viewed by students, faculty, parents, and society as something that is about inspiring students rather than helping them to learn. This, of course, is a misguided notion about what happens in the classroom, and it can set an impossible standard for teachers to live up to. In the face of the pressure to change lives, it can become all too easy to feel incompetent, and teaching is hard enough without questioning ourselves at every turn.
Inspiration is wonderful; in fact, I have been inspired by many teachers (both past and present), and many people I know have been inspired by teachers they have had. The trouble is that inspiration cannot be planned, nor can a conscious effort to inspire guarantee that it will happen. Students can be inspired by any manner of things that happen in a classroom, both profound and mundane, but inspiration is always highly individualized.
I am not willing to throw inspiration out the window entirely, though. Instead, I have a compromise. We should focus all of our efforts on constructing courses, curricula, and environments that foster transformational learning experiences, where students learn deeply through authentic assignments. If we pair this pedagogical approach with empathy, then we are demonstrating respect for students and an understanding that we are teaching human beings, all of whom are on their own journeys through learning and life. If we emphasize these elements, then inspiration may occur. Even if it does not, we have privileged something that may last longer: learning.
William Pannapacker, writing as Thomas H. Benton, describes the enduring hold (and–to his mind–the damage) the Keating mythos has had on the English majors he advises who wish to go to graduate school in “Goodbye, Mr. Keating.” Here is where I diverge from Pannapacker, though. I think it’s great if students are inspired to be teachers and/or academics by Dead Poets Society. We just need to make sure that they go into the field with their eyes open and that this inspiration is eventually complemented by a rigorous study of teaching techniques.
In the end, I am aware that this is a lot of weight to place on a fictional character. There are other Keatings out there in popular culture (I’m sure you are already making a mental list of them), so I don’t really mean to single him out as much as what he represents. I think it would be even better if, ultimately, we looked to those teachers on our own campuses who are doing outstanding work in their classrooms every single day as our models. If inspiration is anywhere, I’m pretty sure it’s there.