On teaching with a cold

PSA: This post was written under the influence of cold medicine. Proceed accordingly.

Mindy Kaling once told me* that she used to think of her body mainly “as the vehicle that carried me to and from places my brain wants to go, like my car.” As someone who reads for a living, this makes sense to me. Like many readers and teachers perhaps, I spend a lot of time contemplating the abstract, the hypothetical, or the long ago. The reading, the thinking, the talking about the reading and thinking—that’s kind of the point of my job. Because of that, and because I’ve been fortunate to have good health so far, Mindy’s words ring true for me; I think I’ve often, maybe half-consciously, thought of my body as a vehicle for my mind. (Let’s also assume that being lost in the world of thought explains my uncanny ability to trip on any surface, no matter how flat.)

There’s nothing like having a cold, however, to remind me that this is an illusion. Turns out, my mind is pretty dependent on my body. I know, shocker. This week I’ve learned that having a cold significantly influences my teaching style. For instance, my main pedagogical goal has become not sneezing on my students. It’s amazing how smart one doesn’t sound when stuffed with phlegm. Anyway, in my composition class this week, in between coughs, I asked students what lingering questions they had about their upcoming essay or about writing in general. They asked the usual questions about dealing with writer’s bloc, responding to sources, strengthening their thesis statements, and so on. Expecting another question along those lines, I was surprised when one student raised her hand and asked, “Do you want a cough drop?”

I paused. Sometimes it catches me off guard when students interact with me as a person, not just a professor. This small gesture reminded me how personal teaching is. It’s not just about exchanging ideas or generating new knowledge; it’s a series of personal interactions between a bunch of quirky people.

Teaching sits at an odd intersection between the world of ideas and the daily realities of life. Sometimes this strikes me as a challenge. Like when I have a cold. Or when my students are trying to figure out how to balance working almost full-time with a full set of classes. How can I teach students how to write introductions if they can’t resist the siren call of the snooze button at 8 o’clock on a Monday morning? How can they appreciate the nuances of 19th-century sentimental reform novels if they had to miss class because they’re coping with illness or a loss in the family?

I’m not sure. But getting to be a part of students’ lives, witnessing these daily realities, is meaningful. It’s a weighty privilege to listen as they sort through ideas for the first time, decide on majors, and adjust to college life. And lately I’ve been trying to think about teaching as a thing that happens not in spite of these factors, but in tandem or cooperation with them, if that makes any sense. Part of my job is to convince students that the ideas of 19th-century novelists and contemporary academics are valuable not because they exist in a realm that’s separate from the daily hustle and bustle of life, but because, in complex and often unpredictable ways, they speak into it. I live in a world where the words of Frederick Douglass, Joan Didion, and Emily Dickinson collide with my students’ track meets, orchestra concerts, and chemistry exams. It’s kind of a cool place to be.

Now, excuse me while I go blow my nose.



*By told me, I mean said in her audiobook Why Not Me?


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