Monday, September 11, 2006

The Dangers of Teaching

Erik, over at Alterdestiny, has a fine post about bleeding all over the classroom on the first day of class. After reading it, I tried to think of my strangest or most embarrassing educational moment. So many to choose from...The time I accidentally put my foot through a wall while teaching Descartes, the time I got locked inside a classroom with a hundred person intro class, or the time I thought I was sitting in a beginning German class but accidentally sat in on advanced French (I thought she had a lousy German accent); but I think the best one ends up being the time I almost accidentally ended my academic career.

I was teaching an introduction to philosophy course at the University of Maryland Baltimore County at 8 am. It was late in the semester and I was teaching Nietzsche. I was trying to make the point that rational thought is different from instinct and it was one of those mornings where you wish you had a switch that would send a quick jolt of voltage through the seats because your class is just dead. Tell a great joke, jump on the table, ain't gonna matter. So, I ask the class, "What is instinct?" Nothing. I ask again. Nothing.

Now I often carry with me into class a hard plastic camping mug with water to drink because chalk dust in the throat makes it hard to lecture. I had finished the water and in the front row sat a guy who always wore sweats and a baseball hat. He looked athletic, most likely a baseball player. So, I thought I might illustrate the point, if they were not going to answer. I picked up the mug and chucked it at the kid figuring that if you play ball, and someone tosses something at you, you naturally just reach up and catch it.

Well...I put a little more on it than I intended and the mug goes speeding towards this kid's head. Instead of instinctively putting his hands up to catch and throw it back, his eyes just get wide and his jaw drops open, completely stunned. Now, it is absolutely true that at moments like this, time goes into slow motion. I am watching this deer caught in the headlights as the very hard mug speeds right for his noggin. I see the campus paper swirling with the headline, "Adjunct assaults student in philosophy class." I see my contract terminated. I see having to explain the criminal proceedings at all future job interviews.

But at the last moment, his hand comes up in front of his face deflecting the mug. The lid flies off in another direction as it slams into the wall with a loud clatter. I don't know if you remember that shot in The Producers panning over the audience right after "Springtime for Hitler," but that was what my class looked like. Immediately, I realize I can save the point. Figuring he is going to say something like, "I didn't think, I just reacted," I asked the kid what was going through his mind as he deflected the mug. He looks up and says, "The only thing I could think is, 'That's the last time I fall asleep in this class.'"

So, as a student or teacher, what's your funniest or most embarrassing classroom story?