My lack of passion in teaching

One of my bigger complaints about Facebook is that it has spawned an “inspirational quote” industry. Plastered across the internet are pictures of earnest and deep-sounding quotations that are intended to show us the way to a happy and meaningful life.

These quotations show up in the social media discussion of teaching and learning as well. They are no less earnest, and no less exhortative. So I’ve decided to come up with my one of my own:

  Go ahead and download this poster for your own Facebook page!

Go ahead and download this poster for your own Facebook page!

That may not have been what you were expecting, so let me explain my curmudgeonly ways.

Those who know me, know that I am not a fan of the word “passion.” When I applied to become an eCampusOntario Open Education Fellow, one of the questions in the application was to explain why I was passionate about open education. I bristled. More recently, when a former student told me how inspirational she found my passion for German studies (“your passion for German culture comes through in every lecture”), I bristled again.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against people being enthusiastic about their teaching or learning. Enthusiasm can be infectious, and if students recognize that I care about the subject I’m teaching, that what I’ve learned in German studies can still excite me after almost 40 years of involvement with the subject, then that’s a good thing because it might excite them, too, and make them more eager and more curious.

The problem I have is when we elevate that kind of keenness to the level of passion. Passion is all-consuming; it acts like an intoxicant, obliterating all other feelings and ideas. I also find it to be very self-involved and even egotistical. Take for example this “quote poster” I found at picturequotes.com:

life-is-nothing-without-passion-quote-1 (1).jpg

I can easily imagine many people subsituting the word “teaching” for “life” in that poster. I’m just not sure about how realistic that is. Can we always be passionate about every element of our lives? I know I can’t.

What concerns me here, however, is the humanities classroom. I really don’t want students to become so excited about a topic that they forget to think, to question, to prod and poke. I’m happy if the topics under discussion intrigue them, but I never want them to lose the capacity to challenge and contemplate and dispute. 

More to the point, I never want them to think that the main focus of my teaching is to get students to like the topics I spend a large portion of my day studying. The main focus of my teaching should be - must be - helping them learn how to think. If my enthusiasm can make them enthusiastic about thinking and questioning, I’ll be more than satisfied.

There’s nothing wrong with a little sobriety in teaching and learning. I know this runs counter to the prevailing sense that we need passion for inspiration, but I’d like to think there is room for some sober second thought about that.


This is the first of my nine contributions to the eCampusOntario 9x9x25 challenge.