On love and learning

Warning: This post is much longer than usual. It’s the synthesis of current events and some things I’ve been working on internally for years.

Since my early days at Grinnell College, Sam Rebelsky has addressed me as “beloved colleague.” No, strike that: at first he called me “beloved junior colleague.” It was only after earning tenure that I became just “beloved colleague.” 

This goes some way towards explaining how it is that at the end of a watershed conversation with my current colleague John Stratton I found myself telling him I love him.

Rewind fifteen years. I clicked with my Grinnell colleagues from the very beginning: my phone interview went on for twice as long as it was scheduled to, something that would be a no-no (and rightly so) in Whitman’s current hiring practices. I arrived at, and left, my on-campus interview with a fluttery feeling that was not just nerves but excitement. I got the job offer the day after I left, in a hotel room about to embark on the first dinner of my next job interview. (That was supremely awkward, and has given me great empathy as a search committee member when I learn that a candidate has received an offer during their on-campus interview.)

Sam is eminently lovable, but wraps many of his own feelings into jokes, I think for fear of being rejected. When I spent some time with him at SIGCSE 2006, in the spring between accepting the position and moving to Grinnell, I distinctly remember asking him (on an escalator, of all places) how I could tell when he was serious. I think he told me he was always serious.

So when Sam started calling me “beloved junior colleague,” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. At first I heard the emphasis on junior, a pointed reminder that I wasn’t yet tenured and therefore not quite an equal. It took me some time to hear the beloved and realize he really meant it. Henry Walker, who is my most senior colleague and who always had the office closest to mine, was much more direct and concrete in his admiration for me, and I think that helped. 

Now to John. I met him through a failed application for a position at Grinnell: we interviewed him on the phone, but in the messy process that happens when you have more strong candidates than you can invite to campus, John didn’t make our short list. I still liked him. So I was delighted when I learned he had applied for the visiting position at Whitman that would start when I started. I recall we had a pretty intense conversation at SIGCSE 2015.

John interviewed at Whitman while I was still at Grinnell, and he was offered the job. He turned it down to finish his two-year stint at Colgate University, a decision I completely understood. It turned out for the best: not only did he later join me at Whitman as a tenure-track colleague, the research project that will be part of what earns his tenure (I hope) emerged from a collaboration with a Colgate colleague in Biology.

While I have a deep affection for John, we are different in a lot of ways. Circumstances have recently led me to draw comparisons to my former colleague, Sam. In particular, neither of them presents themselves to students as exceptionally organized. (I have been told that I am exceptionally organized, though I don’t always feel that way.) Both sometimes let their enthusiasm for new projects run away with them, and forget to look before they leap. (Upon reflection, I share this tendency more than I like to admit.) And both, I’ve come to realize, earn the deep affection of many of their students. (Perhaps I do as well, though it’s hard to see myself as “lovable.”)

Another key difference between me and John is that I am a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, while John’s Christianity is an important part of his identity. That could have been a source of conflict, but mostly it’s made me curious. Many of my inquiries into his personal life have been about his church, not just out of curiosity but out of knowing that it’s important to his well-being.

John’s faith clearly underlies everything he does. His integrity is one of the things I admire most about him. But our students’ extra need for pastoral care as part of the pandemic has brought it out into the open. In particular, in his role as department chair this past year while I was on sabbatical, John wrote an email to our students on the eve of their departure from campus that I greatly admire but never could have written myself. (I got John’s permission to share his letter here in my blog.) 

John signed his email, “Grace and Peace.” He reflects that this sign-off is normally reserved for his close friends and family, but it seemed right to the circumstances. I felt an impulse to adopt his signature, but held back: no one wants to be a copy-cat. And in any case, while I share those values, the words didn’t feel authentic to my voice.

Let me unpack that last sentence. 

Peace is easy. While it’s a Christian value, it’s also a hippie value. In times of trouble, everyone wishes for peace: Dona nobis pacem. Yes, I can wish you peace.

Grace is a bit more difficult. As a non-Christian, it’s not an idea I grew up knowing about. I learned a bit when I read some Hannah Arendt in graduate school. But it really clicked when one of my undergrad math professors, Francis Su, started speaking and writing about grace in teaching

So both peace and grace are wishes I can get behind, especially in my role as a teacher. But the combination of them? That’s too Christian for me. Between my whiteness and the dominance of Christianity in American culture, it would be all too easy to assume I am Christian by default, and so I don’t want to say anything that might give the mistaken impression that I believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. (Dear Readers, please do not take this as an invitation to try to convert me. It won’t end well.)

On that defiant note, let us turn to a third value of Christianity that I admire: love.

While I always knew my parents loved me, love wasn’t something we talked much about. (As a teenager, I borrowed several dozen of my mother’s romance novels. But, Dear Reader, you know that’s not the kind of love I’m talking about here.) 

I didn’t grow up going to church, in case that’s not already clear. But, with apologies to Foreigner, I do know what love is. One of the best known passages from the Bible is 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. It’s lodged firmly in my conscience, even though I had to Google the first sentence just now to learn that it’s from the Bible and not Dear Abby. I quote it here for the benefit of other heathens like me:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 

Now, as the parent of a toddler, love is something I think about almost every day. Sometimes love is the only thing that gets me through a tantrum. (I’m learning a lot about patience, too.) I’m making a conscious choice to often tell my daughter I love her, in hopes that it will be easier for her to say as she grows up than it was for me.

The final lines of one of my daughter’s most favorite bedtime books—not coincidentally given to us by my in-laws—put that love in a broader context: 

Hope and peace and love and trust
All the world is all of us.

That brings me back to my conversation with John earlier this week. We talked under a tree in a park from ten feet apart—physically distanced, and if we’d had a bottle of wine it would have been rather classical as well. As we rose to leave, John thanked me for taking the time for such a long and difficult conversation that would benefit only him and not myself. My answer was that first, I love him, and second that of course helping him benefits me. I want him to be his best self for our students—and I want him to get tenure. I don’t know what I’d do without him.

John was astonished by the first part of my answer. “I love you” is not something one would normally say in a professional setting, but it felt right to me in that moment. We talked a bit about that, and he asked something to the effect of, “But how does that matter to doing our jobs?” I’m writing this essay in no small part to elaborate on my answer to him. I hope the relevance will be a bit more obvious when reflecting on the quotations above. (I’m visualizing a headslap here.)

My answer to John in the moment consisted of two parts. (Like Henry, I’ve become prone to long-winded answers. Or to put a positive spin on it, I’ve learned nothing important is ever simple.) 

First, that loving and being loved makes us happy. Yes, John, our happiness matters, even in our professional lives—maybe especially in our professional lives. For those of us with a conscience, unhappiness can be a sign that something is wrong and needs to change; happiness is a sign that we are doing something right. That might be circular reasoning, but I’ll own it. (I took only four philosophy courses as an undergrad, after all.)

And second, that love is important for learning. (Finally, the title!) 

First and foremost, students need our love. They need our patience and our kindness. As Francis has argued, they most certainly need our forgiveness. All these elements of care are even more necessary in this time of great anxiety and sadness. To bring this back to John, I have admired his gentleness since I heard the story of how he courted his wife (a story I won’t recount here). It shines through in his teaching, and it is of particular virtue in this time.

I would also argue that feeling safe is a necessary condition for learning. It’s certainly a prerequisite for taking risks without fear of the inevitable failures. I’m sure I’m not the first one to argue this. One source of safety is our students’ trust that we, their teachers, will not do them harm. Among the unhappiest times in my professional life have been when I see I’ve violated that trust. 

How do we foster trust? We show students our unearned, unconditional love, the kind of love that a parent feels for her child. This is important. My other senior colleague, John Stone, earned my affection (not quite the same thing as love) during my second year at Grinnell, when we were discussing applications for our new tenure line and he said his most important criterion was showing “love for students.”

Our unconditional love shows in things as large as our syllabi (ha!) and as small as making the effort to learn each student’s name and to pronounce it as correctly as we can

Although I doubt we ever used the word love when we talked about it, the role of the syllabus in conveying loving care is one of the most important lessons I learned from Sam. For example, consider Sam’s “health and well-being” policy, which I have adopted for my syllabi: Rather than staying up all night to finish a programming assignment, students should email their work so far with an attestation that they are going to sleep and will visit office hours as soon as possible. 

It was also Sam who reminded me of the importance of learning students’ names, a lesson I truly learned as a lowly frosh during the first day of CS6 at Harvey Mudd College, when Ran Libeskind-Hadas showed he had learned our names before even meeting us. I can hardly begin to say how cared for I felt in that moment, not to mention later in the semester when he identified our contributions by name in his lecture slides. Ran’s love for his students is probably what made me a computer scientist, and it’s certainly what made me want to become a teacher. Today, I greatly appreciate my colleague John’s efforts to pronounce student’s names correctly; that’s something I need to work on, and I hope to learn from him.

Learning students’ names can be a first step towards a more personal kind of love, which can be important when a student needs our advocacy (as in a recommendation letter, for one common example), or our quasi-parental care, or even our friendship. While it would be a fine aspiration to love each student as an individual, it’s hard to achieve with fifty students or more in a semester. Fortunately, I don’t think it’s a necessary condition for learning. I do hope that every Whittie, or every Grinnellian, has at least one professor who knows and loves them by the time they graduate. 

Of course, love is a two-way street. It’s not just our love for students that matters; our students’ love for us matters too. As I’ve reflected in writing about Ran, a student’s love for a teacher can be profoundly motivating and even life-changing. Returning to the everyday, while I don’t think a student’s love for their teacher is in any way essential to learning, it can help. We enjoy spending time with people we love, and taking enjoyment from learning is no small thing. From the teacher’s perspective, being loved makes our job all the more rewarding. I’ll reiterate that it makes us happy to love and be loved, and our well-being is important.

Finally, let us not forget that unconditional love is something that Christianity says we owe to everyone. My deepest understanding of grace (surely due to Francis, though I hope he’ll forgive any misunderstandings on my part) is that it’s a name for the love we all need when we have done nothing to deserve it. That love can be hard to give and hard to receive, but it’s part of what makes us human.

Even as an atheist, I’m trying. Maybe John and I are more alike than I’ve thought.

Peace and Grace and Love,

P.S. I’m sure I’m not the first one to write about love and teaching. While I have a backlog of articles on race and computing—not to mention at least two books to read before redesigning my classes for this fall—I would welcome recommendations for what to read on this topic.

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