• Sunday, August 31, 2014

The joy of teaching

Golam Sarwar Chowdhury

Where there is formal learning there has to be teaching; and if learning is not easy can teaching entail much joy?  Learning may be difficult and the learner may face multiple challenges; but with motivation, discipline and dedication the learner can eventually overcome all obstacles to reach the goal of learning. In formal education at all levels, teachers are as yet indispensable to make the learners' difficult work a little easier. The teacher also has their own joys without which they would lack the inspiration and motivation which they must have in common with their students.
What are the joys of teaching then, particularly in a country like Bangladesh and generally in the context of the rest of the world?  One of the greatest living scholars of Bangladesh, Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury has written as to why he had stuck to teaching in the early 1960s when many of his friends and colleagues were so keen on joining the erstwhile Pakistan Civil Service.  According to Professor Chowdhury, he could never ever think of leaving behind the Dhaka University library which gave him an opportunity to continue seeking knowledge throughout his life.
This of course is the opinion of a scholar, a real pundit, who was not attracted by what the Civil Service could have given him in terms of power and plenty of worldly benefits.  There were many others, who were not of the calibre of Professor Chowdhury, but found teaching as a profession that gave them opportunities to learn more and at the same time be of help to their students.
I began teaching as a Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Chittagong in 1981.All teachers, from Lecturers to Professors, shuttle to this University from the city in uncomfortable buses which virtually turn into ovens during the summer.  My first journey to the University campus on one of those rickety buses in the summer of 1981 is still an experience that I fondly remember and would do so the rest of my life.  Scholars of the level of Professor Mohammad Younus, Professor Anisuzzaman, Professor Abu Hena Mustafa Kamal, Professor Rashid Chowdhury, Professor Murtaza Baseer, Professor Zia Hyder, to name only a few, were passengers  on the same bus, and this thrill of being with them in the vehicle was something  unique for me.  Even at that young age I could understand that these luminaries of the academic world didn't care about the comfort of a chauffeur driven official car, or an office that looked more like a luxurious lounge.  They were all thinkers who were committed to learning, to the creation of knowledge,  and disseminating knowledge to their learners, and through them, to the rest of the world.
During my 25-year career at Chittagong University one of the greatest joys that still give me energy to go on was the evolution of my relationship with my students.  As a young Lecturer, I was very close to those with who I shared whatever little I knew.  They were more of friends rather than students; and as years passed by I always wanted to remain a trusted friend to my students.  My relationship with my students was not limited within the classroom: I met them outside, at times in my parents' house where I used to live.  They would come to me in groups to clarify something I had said in the class that they didn't quite understand.  Teaching of this kind was much more informal: interspersed with witty comments, jokes and bursts of laughter.
As time passed by, and as I started growing older, my students seemed to be quite shy and more formal when they met me outside the classroom.  On most occasions we would find out an empty classroom to discuss topics that were not clear to them.  I had no office of my own where I could ask them over for these discussions.  Even as an Assistant Professor, I had to share a room with three other colleagues, a setting not really congenial for discussions or tutorials.  But then in academia you can't expect pomp and extravaganza that one has to forget in an institution where learning, and more importantly, the creation of new knowledge, is the most important activity.  
But then as academia introduces students to new and sometimes stunning ideas, it's not done in an atmosphere of strict regimentation.  Universities are institutions that espouse the spirit of freedom too! For training the mind, an environment befitting the energy and zeal of the youth has to be in place.  Students would take part in cultural activities, sports and games of different kinds.  In addition to their studies, these activities help the students to display their creativity and sporting skills.  Throughout my long stay at Chittagong University, I always encouraged my students to use their creative energy in a healthy manner for their own benefits.  Education can never be all about rigorous training of the mind without occasional strolls on gardens of creativity.  While education trains the mind, creative works allow the mind to relax for a while.
As technology continues to develop, can we really envisage a classroom where students will interact with a robot that would turn on devices and students would complete their lesson? Although I have no doubt about the progress of science and the wonders it would create in the future, I don't believe that the machine can ever replace the mind.  Because after all it's the human mind that has created the machine; it's the human mind that has built civilizations; it's the human mind that has solved the mysteries of the medieval world. Therefore, a teacher will always be the person in control of a classroom even after a century or more.
Among the many joys a teacher gets in life is the love and respect they receive from their former students.  I become extremely emotional when suddenly I find a stranger touching my feet and asking me if I could recognize him or her. “Yes, of course, you look familiar; which year did you graduate?”  “I finished my Master's in 1995, and I just admired your Derrida classes.”  This is enough for me to bring back old memories as I hug him fondly and ask about what he does now. Yes, he teaches at a government college somewhere, or she works for the police; but what matters is they have not forgotten their teacher.  This is the ultimate tribute of a student to their former teacher which may be difficult for people in other professions to comprehend. Teachers at levels beginning from primary to University have surely had this reaction when coming across a former student after many years.
If I'm asked as to what is my greatest joy in teaching?  The answer would be the inexplicable feeling after teaching a satisfying class.  It's a sensation that can't be explained but which lingers on for a very long time.

The writer is is Professor of English at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

Published: 12:00 am Thursday, May 29, 2014

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