Teacher

For the first time, I walked to the front of the classroom. Carefully set up my pocket watch where I could track the time, sipped my tea, and addressed my class. I was teaching anthropology.

In 1963 I had been expelled from high school in New York. I spent more time in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village than in class. Present any of my colleagues from the 1960s with a photo of me in front of a class teaching; they’d have told you it was absurd, laughed, and walked away. But, there I was in a tweed jacket, khaki pants, blue oxford button-down shirt, and regimental striped tie.

A friend had accepted another position, and she recommended me to replace her at the local college as an adjunct professor. The nursing students had a social science prerequisite for their degree, and anthropology was one of the available courses. My friend maintained that I had the edge over other candidates because I had worked in an operating room, and was familiar with the needs of professionals working in a health care setting. It was true. After grad school, I had been unable to find work as an anthropologist. My answer to new found poverty was a retreat to the operating room for almost two years. Scrubbing, as an OR tech was something I had felt was safely behind me. I had never seen it as a gateway to Academia. I was a maritime anthropologist on his way back to coastal Maine.

But soon I was to be standing in front of a class. Then it struck me. I could do anthropological fieldwork. I knew the material and approaches in all four quadrants of my discipline. I did not know how to teach.

My training had included extensive training in ethnography, analysis of data, sociolinguistics, archaeology, physical anthropology, and lots more. Truthfully many of my professors at grad school had no idea how to teach. One professor’s lectures were bound in leather with gold leaf on the binding edges. His delivery was as restricted as his notes. Never varying.

As sometimes happens to me, I found the answer in a dream. I was back at 232 Bay State Road. Boston University’s Department of Anthropology on the first floor. Buried in the back, my advisor’s office was barely more than a large walk-in closet. We frequently would spend an afternoon discussing everything from how to brew a good cup of coffee to anthropology. At the time, I did not understand my good fortune in having access to such a generous person as an advisor. Usually, it was here are the office hours, make an appointment with the departmental secretary. In my dream, we were sitting back having a leisurely smoke of some very illegal Cuban cigars I had procured from a Canadian friend. I asked him bluntly: how do you teach? ” Wes, It’s all presentation, orchestration, and knowledge. The knowledge you have. Just work on the presentation and orchestration. You’ll do fine. I taught you.”

When I woke up, I realized he was right. That weekend I made notes on everything I remembered about his presentation and how he orchestrated his lectures. Then I studied my notes, practiced gestures and mannerisms, and pulled together a suitably Ivy League wardrobe. 

On Monday, I patterned my appearance on his; the walk to the desk, setting up the pocket watch, and the style of greeting the students. After a while, it flowed naturally. 

I’ve taught anthropology, woodcarving, media, and television production to adults, high school students, and even middle school students. I eventually grew into my style. But, it began in that cramped office, where I learned the basics of teaching: presentation, orchestration, and knowledge.

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