Hannah’s parents were great fans of Star Trek, and by the time Hannah was four, they were already joking that she should have been named for the coolly rational Mr. Spock on that program. She was an enormously serious child, who had begun to teach herself to read at the age of four. By seven, a book went with her as a constant companion. She had shyly confided one day that being able to read was so wonderful because you could have a friend with you wherever you went. Making friends was not easy for her. Although she had treasured her favorite doll throughout her early childhood, she was not one to cut out paper dolls or giggle endlessly over what she saw as silly things. As she grew older, this difference intensified. Popular songs, the “cutest” boy, who is in and who is out, were just not meaningful concerns. There were always one or two friends, though--a girl, (or even a boy!) whose interests were like her own. These she treasured and was profoundly loyal to.
In high school, at the encouragement of one of her friends, Hannah briefly joined the debate team. Her friend thought that her great reasoning talents would make her a star here. However, her carefully measured and highly logical arguments seemed to take forever and tended to put the audience in a napping mood, so she soon abandoned that. In her junior and senior years, she became a part of the high school academic decathlon team. This was her first real “social” success. She helped to propel the team to a national championship and experienced her first taste of liking and acceptance.
To no one’s surprise, she graduated near the top of her high school class and went on to a college career which culminated in a doctoral degree. Philosophy was her major, and seemed to offer her a lifetime of playing with ideas. To take care of the practical matter of making a living, she accepted a university position as an assistant professor in the philosophy department. Scholarly research and writing were a delight—like being paid to do your very favorite thing. But then there was teaching. She had been attracted to a university position because it offered so much freedom to design your own projects and manage your own time. She regarded her teaching as a responsibility that she owed in return for her salary, but saw it far more as an interruption in her scholarly work than a joy. Even worse, unlike her writing, it had to happen on the university’s schedule, not hers. From day one, Hannah was in trouble here. Her lectures were dense and very hard to follow. She expected far more from her students than most were willing or able to give, and sometimes encountered near mutiny from her classes. When it seemed clear that a capable student was making no effort, she did not hesitate to criticize sharply. While she could be very tolerant of differences in student dress, lifestyle, religious preference, sexual preference and similar personal choices, there was no place in her world for sloppy or illogical thinking. On the plus side, however, her lectures were always right on the cutting edge of current thinking, highly accurate and very challenging. The few really dedicated philosophy majors in her classes raved about her.
In her early years of teaching, the grumbling of average students did not seem to affect her department evaluations. The university regarded scholarly research as a top priority and saw that she was making excellent progress there. In the classroom, it was clear that she understood her subject matter and had high standards and a real following among the majors. That was considered more important than the various student complaints. She moved along at a good pace, becoming, in due time, a tenured professor. During those years, she married a man who had been a dear childhood friend, and settled down quite happily. She was constantly in the midst of two or three writing projects, as well as endless lecture revisions (a necessity to keep from dying of boredom in the classroom). Students who loved her, thought of her as a dear figure, forever rushing down the halls, forever late for class, carrying enormous stacks of notes, hair flying in all directions. Those who suffered under her stern grading, slow feedback (papers were often returned weeks later) and sharply worded criticisms, would describe her very differently. Many of them marveled at the idea that anyone had wanted to marry her.
In her later years at the university, things changed in the world of teaching. This was a public institution and national trends brought two changes. First, the ever-growing quantity of students seemed to be less and less prepared, and less and less willing to devote a great deal of time to study. Second, a national movement toward student-centered learning was changing the way that university teaching was viewed. Increasingly, both student learning and student satisfaction were seen as resting on the shoulders of the faculty rather than the individual student. As a result, student evaluations became a major force in the evaluation of faculty. Clearly, when it was the opinion of the average student that mattered most, Hannah was in trouble.
Over time, and with varying irritation, most of her colleagues responded to this change by making the classroom more user-friendly, having more discussion and less lecture, ordering textbooks that were simpler, and easing off on course requirements. This clashed with every ideal Hannah had, and she would have none of it. Although her Perceiving preference should have indicated a fair amount of flexibility, these issues threatened her deepest principles—those related to competence, dedication to rational thought, and a lifelong commitment to greater understanding, In addition, her strong Introversion meant that a loose classroom format was something that she could never become comfortable with. She had always written out her lectures, and though her memory skills were excellent, she tended to deliver the lectures while scanning her written comments, thus minimizing her social discomfort. As her colleagues’ standards changed around her, Hannah’s approach was further and further from the mainstream, and her evaluations sunk to new lows. Given tenure, she could not be fired simply because the university’s standards had changed, but she had become an embarrassment to her department and a source of sorrow to herself. With no resolution available, she thought often about early retirement.
It is hard to find an inspiring moral in Hannah’s story. She chose a very good profession for herself at the time that she entered the University. Her teaching style was not out of line for the times, and she did her best within the confines of her own temperament. That the times changed around her was beyond her control. That she could not change with the times may have been beyond her control also at this point in her life. The only real lesson to be learned here is that we all need to develop our skills in our less-preferred modes. It would have been helpful if Alicia could have seen very early on that she talked over many people’s heads, and expected everyone to be pretty much like her. She needed to know that people differ greatly in what interests and excites them, and in what they are able to understand. Alicia had a fine mind and should have been able to use it to find some workable compromise between her standards and the world. Most of all she needed to develop some respect for the views and values of others where they were profoundly different from her own.
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