In 1964, when I began teaching English literature at the University of Minnesota, I lectured. That was how I’d been taught when in college, so I just started doing the same thing myself. I worked hard to make my lectures sprightly and engaging; students took notes eagerly and told me they learned so much in my courses.

This all came to an end during the Viet Nam War. As I came to believe that wars are often about one country’s trying to force a way of living on another. In other words, I began to understand how colonialism, which I found offensive and dangerous, worked. Simultaneously, I had occasion to act on a premise instilled in me as child by my father. He was a worker rather than an executive, so if there was a strike, he didn’t get paid. He explained to me about picket lines and drove home just how loathsome intro was ever to cross one of those. Students and a few faculty set up picket lines outside some of the building where very large lecture courses were taught. I knew I was not to go into my building if students began marching outside it with anti-war signs. So I took all books and papers out of my office and arranged to teach my Milton course in one of the student’s small apartment near campus.

I also experienced an epiphany: I realized that lecturing to students was not so different from waging physical war–I was imposing MY “take” on a given author or work on all the young people in my classrooms. My interpretation “won” over any they might venture to share. They learned to “surrender” any wobbly approach to my “superior” one.

What happened next change me permanently. I stopped lecturing, explaining–sometimes not so clearly–that I wanted to hear what they thought off Hamlet or John Donne or the way comedies ended compared to tragedies. So my directions might be something like “In your small groups, talk about the third act of “King Lear” and then we’ll come back to the whole class and share.” I then sat quietly while the poor students tried to follow my empty directions.

Gradually I learned about front-loading the class before dividing them into small groups. I also took a seminar for faculty taught by a professor of Education who gave me books to read on holding viable and rigorous discussions.
Things got better and I even came to understand that occasionally students deserved to hear my grasp of a given author or form of writing before they contributed their own insights or raised their own questions,

In retirement, one of the best moments for me come from doing gig teaching where groups of usually older adults meet via Zoom or at the University’s Arboretum or, occasionally in my living room. I send them “prompts” that help them organize their responses, go more deeply into the books we will discuss, and expand their knowledge of certain aspects of a given text. The people who join these evenings keep coming back. They listen to each other and to me because they know that will enrich how they are thinking and feeling about a piece of literature.

I realize that I am actually good at creating situations where strangers can sit together and speak and hear amazing things about very hard pieces of writing. When I ask myself how it has come to be that I can help make such experiences happen, I often go back to that time a long time ago when I first labeled what I was doing as I stood in front of young learners and poured my wise words into their weak little brains as intellectual collonialism. Who could have predicted that a very awful war so very far away could help me alter how I would conduct my teaching from then on?