The Best Compliment I’ve Received on My Teaching

It was not the evaluation that said I was a snappy dresser. It was the time fifteen years ago when a student in an introduction to modern history who had identified himself as conservative said that, thanks to our class’s discussions of The Communist Manifesto, he wanted to read more Marx.

Today, when the notion that universities are hothouses of leftist indoctrination, bastions of neo-Marxist groupthink, etc., etc., has moved from the fringes of far-right fantasy to something like a mainstream conservative view, this may well be received as a damning admission. Historians’ Hidden Agenda EXPOSED! As a history professor, I am routinely assumed to be left-leaning (fair enough, though not because I’m a prof) and postmodernist (a charge I’m not sure how to weigh, as it is hurled by people who have even less idea what it means than I do) and seeking to brainwash students (which is just stupid; professors do not control what students think). So of course I would be pleased by this; it shows that my invidious plan is working.

I am not so naive as to think that anyone who hurls such accusations would be moved to reconsider them by anything I might say; it’s in the nature of demonology to be self-confirming. I would note, however, that I, postmodern-neoMarxist-indoctrinator in the making, was not the one running the course in question; I was one of a handful of adjuncts assisting on a course taught by a decidedly non-leftist professor — indeed, a New York Post columnist and biographer of and former advisor to Rudy Giuliani (a more formidable figure in his pre-Four Seasons Total Landscaping days). So, for what it’s worth, I was in no position to brainwash anybody.

In any case, what made the compliment so good was not that the student suggested his political convictions were changing. I have no idea whether they were or not; I didn’t share mine and didn’t ask about his, and I wouldn’t claim changing them as any kind of pedagogical victory. What made it a compliment was his recognition and articulation that whatever his current views, there was more to know about the seemingly familiar ideas we were discussing, and that this knowledge was to be sought above all in reading and analyzing historical sources. There is nothing more that a teacher of an introductory history course can ask.

It’s the end of a hard term and no compliments are merited, so perhaps I write this to reassure myself that I am at least capable of better, or have been. Or maybe I like the idea that a conservative student could recognize the goal of my teaching Marx as something other than ideological indoctrination, something more than a few conservatives today think impossible, and that projects like Turning Point are devoted to making so. Or it could be as simple as missing the pleasure of working with historical sources in the classroom, and witnessing the effect that direct engagement with them has on people who are willing to be surprised.

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