Is it that hard to depict teaching on screen? Anyone? Anyone?

For the past few weeks, my Twitter stream has been filled with colleagues noted their feelings about The Chair, Netflix’s excursion into Liberal Arts. The mix of joy at finally seeing ‘people like us’ on screen and trauma at the reliving memories of their day job certainly made a change from the usual psephologists-arguing-with-each-other.

I’m sure someone else can better comment on the politics of the show, even if much of it feels all too familiar, but here I’m going to think about another aspect: the teaching.

TV and film have been pretty consistently bad about convening the reality of teaching a class, despite every person involved having sat in classes at some point in their life. My personal low spot was the round of spontaneous applause for Stanley Tucci’s lecture in The Children Act: maybe you’ve seen that happen, but I doubt you’ve seen it happen for that.

The Chair has a bunch of teaching, mainly falling into the two classic camps of such things: the overly dry and the super-hip. Partly this is about conveying the tensions among the faculty, but throughout the teaching is problematic, a source of issues rather than solutions. The old guard are set in their ways and their knowledge, the young are not rigorous enough, it suggests.

Of course, much is not depicted, but what we do see invites questions, about respect for students as learners, about team-teaching, about the (mis)use of technology, about finishing classes with key takeaways. And, of course, the entire series hangs on an incident in class that is, at best, unthinking.

Much as I understand that teaching isn’t necessarily the most conducive of things to portray, and that it’s also at the service of some dramatic arc, it matters inasmuch as it shapes students’ expectations of how things might be.

Maybe teaching is about performance: ours and theirs. But ultimately it has to be about learning, and the tropes of on-screen aren’t really a way forward.

That means that the priority isn’t about being down with the kids or having published the definitive study, or even about being a famous actor who’s also done some academic work: no, the priority is about building a space that works for you and your students to explore and understanding the subject. It’s not that lectures are bad per se, or that you have to get your students perform humorous songs about Moby Dick, but that any activity you have is connected clearly to your learning objectives.

This won’t be the same each time you do it, because it’s a contingent process and one that you have to find your way to.

And because you’ve stuck through the post, I offer you the archetypes of the film options of ‘what’s teaching like?; nice Ethan Hawke on a desk in Dead Poets’ Society and Econ with Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. You can decide if either is realistic or useful.

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