In Defense of Frustrating Professors

“Then someone had used the phrase ‘the Socratic method.’ What was that? It was apparently a way of giving your friend his head in an argument and progging him into a pit by cunning questions.”

– Winston Churchill

I had a bad case of senioritis and I was in no mood to put up with that impish smile and those sparkly eyes as he declared enigmatically, “there is no such thing as ‘Catholic Political Thought’.”

Then why on earth am I in this class? I thought. I had skipped a test and tried to drop it several times, but my stubborn advisor wouldn’t let me. He thought it was good for me to stay in this seemingly pointless class. He was right, as usual.

The man who taught my Catholic Political Thought class was one of the most frustrating professors I ever had. Class often felt chaotic and disorganized, and it was hard to see a consistent narrative. Why is he still talking about love and suffering? What does this have to do with politics? Ok, I get that morality and the human experience are important, but tell me what Augustine thinks. But he was also one of the most gentle and humble men I ever met, and it’s also possible that I learned more from him than I learned in any of my other, more organized and efficient professors. The very un-academic phrases he often repeated are the ones that stayed with me and still have bearing on a whole variety of real-life situations I’ve faced, as well as on my academic pursuits.

It’s easy to enjoy straightforward classes because you get to feel like you’re in control. Taking notes is a breeze, and at the end of the semester you wind up with a series of bolded points with clear definitions; all you have to do is commit them to memory and you’re good.

And then there are the ones that force you to think by putting you through painful and confusing processes. None of my political philosophy teachers in college ever answered a question, in the strict sense. Instead, they started to muse and would go on sometimes for five minutes at a time. There was never a simple solution, and there always seemed to be many…many…annoyingly many sides to the issue. This used to drive me nuts. Students hate roundabout answers. When we ask a question, we want a straightforward definition we can write quickly and fit easily into a neat outline in our notes. In this age of bulleted buzzfeed lists and 250-word tweets, we don’t have the patience for rambling old men who make us feel confused and lost in problems, and who make us feel like we are not in control.

But in graduate school I’ve come to realize that, in retrospect, these frustrating classes are the ones that have taught me something more than a list of definitions; they are the ones that taught me how to reason and think for myself. The patterns of thought I learned in those classes have remained with me. My frustration at their refusal to answer my questions straightforwardly forced me to continue to ponder the issues outside of class until I really did see that there were, in fact, many sides to the issue and many steps to the answer. A good professor teaches you to understand the value of each step. There are answers, but sometimes they are complicated; “reason” is the ability to find your way through the maze of complications in a problem and arrive at a resolution, all the better for having made your way through it slowly, one step at a time.

Slow, rambling answers are highly underrated by us young people. But their value lies in the fact that they force us to listen carefully for the answer, and show us how everything is connected in a whole. Learning in terms of bulleted lists and bolded definitions creates a temptation to see the world as a series of clear and straightforward divisions when, oftentimes, that is not the case. A list cannot teach you to think for yourself. Practicing patience can.

We all want answers, and we want them as quickly as possible. Even the best students. That hunger for knowledge makes it feel frustrating when we aren’t given the answers we crave right away. But the professors who take the time to work through problems slowly (and who withhold parts of the answer on purpose, forcing you to find them for yourself) are the ones who teach us to have the patience it takes to become a true lover of learning.

Why patience? Because patience is the ability to take what is front of you (be it a text, a situation, or a person), see it, and value it for exactly what it is, even if it’s initially difficult to understand. Patience opens you up to receive what is being offered to you in the moment, even if you don’t immediately recognize the benefit it can bring you. Patience is the ability to allow it to remain with you as an experience or a thought that changes you and your habits of mind. This is learning.

This is not to say that straightforward, clear, organized professors don’t have anything meaningful to teach you. On the contrary. Learning is a matter of taking each professor as he is, for his own person, and having the patience to receive what he has to offer as a unique individual with his own methods and years of experience. If you are a truly dedicated student, this won’t be difficult. The ability to learn can be exercised in any circumstance if you truly desire to know.

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