I ran across a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to my influential friend, the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. I clambered on board. She rang under my feet like an empty Huntley & Palmer biscuit-tin kicked along a gutter; she was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape, but I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather lazy about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.
Actually I like work. I like teaching math precisely because it is a chance to find myself at least at it relates to mathematics and to be a bit highfalutin because it connects to the pulse of humanity. As I have said, I see wonders everyday, if nothing else simply the unimaginable efforts my students (many of them) make as they wend their way through days filled issues with their children or significant others or jobs or volunteering or other classes and their good cheer, their positiveness, their hopes. My own reality includes parts of their reality.
I wrote a teaching philosophy a few years back and discussed courage to teach. Here is the relevant passage.
It takes courage to teach. Not in the sense that Parker J. Palmer describes in his book of that name, but because if we teach well we are changing students’ lives. “It is a serious thing to interfere with another man’s life,” said Professor Gilbert Highet. The language we use, the stories we tell, the examples we choose are all absorbed in some way into our students’ experiential memories. The grades we give determine or restrict their future choices. Teaching also takes courage in another sense. A small part of our own hopes and dreams necessarily transfer onto our students. Yet we know that even the best, most goodhearted students may not succeed because of economic recession, sickness, war, family situation or just plain bad luck. So as we encourage them, we must keep our trepidations to ourselves. Finally it also takes courage to stand up in front of a class as a model of a working adult. We are often some of the only people they have ever seen at work. For some we are the first people that share their love of their discipline and interest in the world at large. But students are perceptive and see our flaws and failures. It takes courage everyday to expose ourselves to their scrutiny.
My own reality. What about the mathematics? As can be seen from a few of these posts the responsibility for teaching mathematics to live students forces me to consider what is important for them to know, what can be simplified and how to make the classes better. There is a continual feedback loop operating between my understanding of mathematics and the necessity of conveying that understanding to students.
I turned 67 a few days ago and I am still working on my own reality and it makes me happy.