"Students -- and it's whom, not what."

This morning I was thinking about the grammar of the verb "to teach." It occurred to me that "to teach" has a usage pattern quite unlike verbs such as "to speak" or "to minister," in that the latter verbs properly take a preposition when indicating the object of the activity while "to teach" does not. [It's like "to love" or "to hate," which take no preposition when indicating their object either, street slang of "hating on" to the contrary.] In fact, when "to teach" does take a preposition, it's ordinarily something pejorative.

Think about it. "I was speaking to him." "We minister to the sick." In both cases, the preposition "to" designates the flow of the action and the target of the process. But one doesn't "teach to" a classroom full of students -- and the only usage of "teach to" I can think of off-hand is "teach to the test," which I think that just about every right-thinking individual acknowledges as a Bad Thing. [Note that it's one thing to "teach to the test" if you are, say, teaching a test-taking class, like an SAT prep class or something, but I usually don't hear that locution in that context; instead it's "teaching someone how to take the test" or something like that.] You can teach someone about something, but in that case the preposition signifies the subject-matter, not the students.

I think that this is related to another oddity about the grammar of "to teach": if someone asks me what I am teaching next semester, I ordinarily reply with a list of courses. Or, in a slightly different context, if we are discussion a particular course and someone asks what I am teaching, under normal circumstances this seems to function as a request for information about the syllabus. So the grammar of the verb designates the subject-matter as the object that is to be singled out: "I am teaching a course on science fiction and world politics" or "I am teaching Dune and Watchmen and The Sparrow, among others" seem to be the appropriate response to a question about teaching.

How very very odd. At least, how very very odd when I stop to think about it. There's a missing term here someplace. And that missing term is students. In some sense, the correct answer to "what are you teaching next semester?" should, I think, always be "students -- and it's whom, not what." And then perhaps by way of elaboration some information about what kind of students: what level, how many, in what format, and so on. But this isn't the usual reply, and it's not what leaps quickly to mind when the question is asked. Oddly, students are not ready-to-hand when we start talking about teaching. Oh, they're there implicitly or in passing, but not immediately as the direct object of the verb (even though, semantically, students are the direct object of the verb "to teach" -- which is why they don't require a preposition).

Hence, the oddity. After all, what is more important in the end -- the material that one is supposedly teaching, or the students that one is actually teaching? I often think that the material that is supposedly being taught is just an excuse, a way to gather a group together and get them started as a learning community. There has to be a there there in order to keep people focused, and there are certainly some things that I think it instructive for students to grapple with (Hobbes and Machiavelli and Nietzsche and Kierkegard and Wittgenstein and Weber never get old, in my opinion). But in the end, I don't really care whether students walking out of one of my courses "got" the material as long as they participated in a learning community that was wrestling with important issues.

So, what am I teaching next semester? Students (two undergrad courses and one graduate-level course) -- and it's whom, not what.

No comments: