Talks Between Teachers

(A Dialogue with Shirah Hecht)

In the summer of 1995, and continuing through the end of the fall term, Shirah Hecht and Howard Becker corresponded by e-mail about teaching field-work. Shirah initiated the exchange because she was teaching the class for the first time and had some questions about how to do it. She had taken Howie’s class some years earlier at Northwestern and had memories of those events, but wanted more details. The following excerpted version of the resulting dialog preserves the significant teaching-related issues. So she wrote:

From Shirah Hecht: 2-AUG-1995 Subj: Still out there?

Hi, Howie.

Are you still out there in cyberspace? I think of you often these days for the following reason: I am scheduled to teach the research methods course required for graduate students in sociology this fall....

I am trying to figure out if I am smart enough (and brave enough) to give the students as much free rein as you gave us in the field methods class, and still give them the feeling that they are getting something for their money. I guess I will have to structure it more than that, since it’s not just field methods, but still would like to lean in that direction, for all kinds of reasons.

Any hints?

From Howard Becker 5-AUG-1995 Subj: RE: Still out there?

Dear Shirah:

I don’t know about the amount of freedom. I’ll think about that and be back to you.

For the next month, Howie and Shirah exchanged several e-mails, which might be considered of a philosophical or theoretical nature, about good texts to use, what is the nature of research, etc. Then classes started.

From: From Shirah Hecht 8-SEP-1995 Subj: OY VEY!


OY VEY! Having sort of recovered from my first day of class two days ago, I can’t help but wonder how does anyone teach grad students—or teach anyone for that matter—for a living. I know I’m much too sensitive.... but OY VEY! That’s really the only word for it. They’re virtually just a smaller version of my seventy-five undergrads from last year’s teaching experience. I guess I shouldn’t expect any different: none of us really ever “grows up,” whatever that is.

How do teachers do it all the time....?

Was I like that as a grad student? I guess I now know why, after I took my last class in grad school, I swore I would never choose to sit on that side of the teacher’s desk again.

Let me know if you’re too busy to read all this. This course just brings you to mind a lot, since your fieldwork course was significant for me.

From Howard Becker: 9-SEP-1995 Subj: RE: OY VEY!

Dear Shirah:

Teaching is a little disheartening the first day, for sure. It almost always happens that things get better. Don’t expect (here’s Foxy Grandpa, with his wise remarks) all of the students to do interesting stuff. They won’t. But they will get better and know more when the class is over than they did before it started, which isn’t bad. The thing to work for is developing a kind of group spirit in the class, so that they help each other and teach each other. You mainly do that just by expecting them to and by not doing too much of the work yourself.

You will remember me often just sitting there until someone said something, and letting people solve their own problems instead of telling them “the answer,” which I usually couldn’t do because there wasn’t any one answer. When they start talking to each other, then you’re in business, and you can join in just like one of them. This also means that you have less work to do, always a desirable thing.

Don’t hesitate to send more Oy Veys, if it would be helpful.

From Shirah Hecht: 12-SEP-1995 Subj: Letting off steam

THANKS for the great advice. We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, this came to me this morning, after a couple of nearly sleepless nights:

The Case of the Missing Item: Installment One. This was no common missing item.

As he loaded the double-barreled question, and aimed it at the respondent, his hand shook. The respondent never flinched. She knew her job. She reached for the number two pencil on the table between them, pointed it at him and said quietly, “Put the questionnaire down. Now.” The researcher considered his next move. How crazy was she? Was this going to be a No Response situation? Or was he looking at the business end of a Don’t Know? He knew he had asked the wrong question. Realizing he had to move fast, he turned quickly and it was then that he saw the participant observer, reflected in the mirror. This was no time to be taking notes, he thought.

Then he saw what was happening. The room he’d followed her into was close-ended, and there was no way out. He’d have to interview her, or he was a dead man.

From Shirah Hecht 13-SEP-1995 Subj: I did it


I did it. I filled 2-1/2 hours of time with the grad students, between them talking and me responding and asking what they thought and me responding.... I don’t know if I did it “right,” but it seemed to have worked. I estimate I got to about 66%: either 2/3 of the class felt okay or 2/3 of their thoughts and feelings were that this was okay or we accomplished 2/3 of what could be accomplished in the time. Something like that.

You might not like the adulation, but you saved my butt on this one.

From Howard Becker 13-SEP-1995 Subj: RE: I did it

Dear Shirah:

All adulation gratefully accepted. Pay no attention to any complaints I may make.

The thing to remember is that whatever you do in class is a form of training the students in what you want them to do in class, so be sure you teach them to do the right things.

From Shirah Hecht: 14-SEP-1995 Subj: Question


Do students ever question your course assignments? While most of the folks are not doing this, I’ve gotten a serious question on just about everything I’ve asked them to do. Partly I know it’s innocuous; I just have to clarify what I mean. But sometimes it is phrased as a questioning of how I have set things up. And some of it is wanting me to tailor the course to them individually in this respect. I just wondered if this happens to you or not.

From Howard Becker: 14-SEP-1995 Subj: RE: Question

Dear Shirah:

Gee, I don’t know if it happens or not. I think maybe that’s because I don’t quite “give assignments.” That is, I never say “You have to do this,” let alone “You have to do this or else.” I usually phrase things more like, “If you want to learn field work a good thing to do would be to do x or y or z.” I also say things like that I already have a Ph.D. and know how to do this stuff and if they don’t want to learn it it’s OK with me, everyone doesn’t need to know it, but then why are they taking the class? Of course, sometimes what you’ve suggested they do won’t work in a particular situation or locale and you have to make allowances for that.

But I think maybe the main thing to consider is that before a student can question an assignment, an assignment has to have been given. If you only give suggestions and not assignments, there’s nothing to question. And I’m sincere about all that, I really don’t care if they do it or not, it’s up to them. Like when they ask how much fieldwork they have to do, I say, “Look. I said I would read all the field notes you wrote. So the more you write, obviously, the more work I have to do. So it’s in my interest for you to do as little as possible. On the other hand, if you do that you for sure won’t learn anything. It’s up to you.” I also confess, before they have a chance to accuse me of it, that this is highly manipulative.

Tailoring it to individuals isn’t so terrible. I usually do that with the reading, not giving much or any general “required” reading for the whole class, just suggesting things that might be helpful. Maybe I should add that my whole philosophy is to get them out and doing stuff, which will surely get them into some kind of trouble, give them some problem they don’t know how to solve, and then they really want to learn and will do practically anything you tell them, out of fear and desperation, which are very good motives for learning.

I don’t know, is that any help?

From Shirah Hecht: 14-SEP-1995 Subj: RE: Question


Yes, that’s helpful. I realize now that I knew deep down this is the answer you would give me. While I’ve sort of moved in that direction, compared to what they are used to, I haven’t taken it to the logical conclusion. But it’s a good standard to keep in mind and shoot for (while trying not to be contradictory about it).

It’s hard (sort of, not so much hard as contrary to knee-jerk reactions) to give up all those things we are trained to think we should do in front of people: control them and express ourselves in the usual ways, is the way I see it. It’s ego. I remember you telling me in my fieldwork, when I ran into trouble getting access to the group I wanted to study: drop your pride. It lessens your work load considerably, but isn’t the way we are all raised, I don’t think. I as much as told them, I don’t quite have the courage to tell them what you told us on day one: you’ll all be getting As.

From Howard Becker: 14-SEP-1995 Subj: RE: Question

Dear Shirah:

People who ask me questions of the kind you’ve been asking usually do know what I am going to say. It’s as though phrasing the question is enough to know the answer (as if there were an answer, rather than just answers).

It is hard to do these things, and I think some of the difficulty comes from an intellectual source, not just habits we were raised with: we find it hard to give a defensible rationale for acting in this libertarian who-gives-a-shit style. There is a perfectly defensible rationale I can trot out if I have to. Some of it you can see in the piece I did (Becker 1972) called ‘A School Is a Lousy Place to Learn Anything In”: people do what they have to do to get what they want, and you are in charge of what they have to do so, if you make them do X, they will. The things we don’t like about student behavior are thus usually generated by the requirements we lay on them. Not laying requirements on them, making it all voluntary, gets rid at a stroke of all sorts of student mishigas.

From Shirah Hecht: 14-SEP-1995 Subj: Another approach


So is this how it goes?


“You’re making me do this stuff and I don’t want to do it.”

“I’m not making you do this stuff.”


“You didn’t make me do any stuff so I didn’t and I didn’t learn anything.”

“So that’s my fault, that you didn’t do anything or learn anything?”

I’m getting nervous about my course again (as Wednesday approaches). But I’ve finally formulated my question.

What if you have stuff you think is neat to say? I’m thinking that if I get up and say that stuff, it will discourage discussion, because it will make them passive again. The other disadvantage is that I can’t fill 2.5 hours with neat stuff to say, and now I have to, because I’ve squelched their need to speak for themselves. So, I am trying to have faith that in the course of conversation, I’ll get to say my neat stuff, things I think they would be wise to think about. And that it’s worth sitting on my hands, waiting for my opportunity. And that they will get something out of this course, if I do this. Is this the answer? One thing I would like to model for them is excitement about cool applications of research methods.

And another thing! In tomorrow’s session, a student is supposed to present on your article, “Whose Side are We On?” (Becker 1967) 1 suspect she’ll be critical. I’m not worried about that. I’m more worried about how to do this thing, let her speak, give her the room she needs, and hope she fills it. Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything, I’ll just have to see how it goes, fix it later if I have to.

This is a growth experience, I can tell. :-

From Howard Becker 19-SEP-1995 Subj: RE: Another approach

Dear Shirah:

I don’t know why it is so interesting to live through this experience with you, but it is.

Anyway, yes, that is the answer. I always have a lot of neat things to say, and I just wait and find something the students say to hook what I have to say to. There always is something like that. As far as the student who is going to denounce my article, I often assign things of mine and practically insist that they find something to criticize. But also that they find something useful in it.

The general point is to let them find their way around and try to find answers for themselves, giving such advice as you can along the way. That’s where you get to do your neat stuff.

Good luck tomorrow.

From Shirah Hecht: 2-OCT-1995 Subj: Trying to report in


I lost almost all control over my life and time in the last two weeks, which is why you haven’t heard more from me. And also, maybe being in the middle of teaching, I don’t have as much perspective for reflection as I did heading into it.

I can give you the response your article received in class. One student commented: he used all those theories, from all those different sources! That gave me a chance to give them your line about theories as tools, to use so as not to reinvent the wheel if someone else has already thought about this part of the thing. I have added another perspective, too, on theory. I decided this semester that what theory does is give us a way to try to connect facts or ideas so that we are more likely to remember them, for later use. It’s consciousness-raising in that way; and just a handy format, since we don’t know what we’ll need to remember at a later time.

On your article, another student also responded interestingly: “I would have liked to hear his tone of voice,” as she read the article, as it seemed you might have been speaking tongue-in-cheek. The best perhaps was another one, who said that your conclusion seemed to be saying, and she was too delicate to say this aloud, but suggested it, “Then, fuck it.”

So that’s the feedback on that.

I feel like a parent sometimes to the students, but I don’t seem to want to be. I am probably too supportive.... and sometimes worry way too much that they will get into some trouble and that I will be responsible. I added a corollary to your comment that they will do whatever I do in class: they’ll be doubly sure to do the stupid things I do.

So, that’s the extent of my insight these days. They seem alternately panicky that I am asking them to do terrible things at which they will fail, and trying to get out of the work or get me to do something else around it because “they’ve already done this and want to learn more.” Seems bogus to me sometimes, but other times it doesn’t.

From Howard Becker 4-OCT-1995 Subj: RE: Trying to report in

Dear Shirah:

Sounds like your class is going just fine. As long as people will argue with me, I’m happy. It’s the sitting silent that gets to me.

I’ve started teaching: field methods. Looks like a reasonable class, but you can never tell. I leaned on them yesterday about getting started right away and we’ll see what happens.

From Shirah Hecht: 5-OCT-1995 Subj: Quick question


I have a relatively quick question. One of the students asked if I had any suggested readings to assign on doing fieldwork, something I had not previously provided. I have the long bibliography you handed out to us but hesitated to provide it. If I weren’t in touch with you, I would probably just put it on reserve for them, and tell them its source. Since you are around on e-mail, I just thought I’d run it by you first. Of course, I’ve taken wholesale all of the insights you shared in the class I took with you, so this probably isn’t much different, but I just thought I’d check. The written word, and all that. Welcome back. And may all of your fieldwork students do interesting work....

From Howard Becker: 5-OCT-1995 Subj: RE: Quick question

Dear Shirah:

You’re welcome to give that bibliography to anyone you want. The problem with it, of course, is that it is way out of date. At one time I had this vision of keeping an up-to-date list of all the good things about fieldwork and all the good fieldwork studies; but I got lazy. What can you do? It’s OK up to about fifteen or twenty years ago. The good side of that is that it includes a lot of stuff that people are pretty much unaware of these days. A colleague here says he is constantly shocked, because he’s a generation after me, at all the good work that he really never heard of, let alone read.

My fieldwork class looks like it might be interesting. But, as I explained to them, it isn’t the topic you choose, it’s how you do it, and that’s still an unknown.

From Shirah Hecht: 5-OCT-1995 Subj: New question


When you have the chance, maybe you’ll reveal one more secret to me. Do you like teaching? I mean, are you one of those who does enjoy it?

There’s something so odd, still, about the interaction. It takes a lot to bend it to one’s will. So then I wonder if it’s worth it. Yet, here I am, owing so much of where I’ve been to the fact that a bunch of people out there considered it worth their time to be what we call teachers. (Sounds like a variation on Tennessee Williams, “I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers or teachers....).

From Howard Becker 6-OCT-1995 Subj: RE: New question

Dear Shirah:

Do I like teaching? To tell the truth, yes, I do. I pretty much hate most of what goes with it: departments and administrations and voting and meetings and requirements and all that. But I like sitting around with people bullshitting about interesting things, which I guess is my idea of what teaching really is, if it goes the way it should. In the last few years, I’ve often found teaching undergraduates more interesting than dealing with graduate students. I think that’s because the graduate students are now so “professionalized,” so intent on learning the right way to do things so that they can get a good job, and so nervous about “the requirements,” and all that. I can’t blame them, but they aren’t so much fun.

Undergraduates, on the other hand—well, I often have students who don’t know how to read very well, so that’s what the teaching turns into: how to read a scientific article. And that is actually interesting. I like leading them through a table and getting them to see what it means. I don’t know how long I’ll continue to find that interesting but right now I do.

One secret about liking it, I think, is that I don’t try to bend anything to my will. I guess this is kind of a Zen thing. I’d use another metaphor. I try to find out where things are going and help them get there. I never try to impose my will because, fundamentally, I guess I believe that people know what they want to do and it’s not up to me to tell them they’re wrong, just to help them do it. If I think it’s a dumb thing to do I’ll show them why I think that, why it won’t get them where they want to go, or tell them to go somewhere else where they could find what they’re looking for. So I never have the sense of things not going the way I want them to in class, except when I forget all this sage talk and try to get them to do something they don’t want to do or, more likely, can’t do without more help than I’ve given them.

From Shirah Hecht: 6-OCT-1995 Subj: Zen


“Zen,” yes, that’s what I planned on writing you after session 3 (before I went into session 4 pretty unprepared). That I felt like some sort of Zen Buddhist. And, yes, these grad students are, in a subtle way, much focused on getting to some end-point, a professional end-point, and have lost some openness as a result. I think my class (when I was a student) was pretty much like that, too, which took much of the fun out of it.

From Shirah Hecht: 13-OCT-1995 Subj: Another hurdle


I have another hurdle I’d like to get over and thought I’d run it by you, if I’m not over-drawing on my account here. I’d like to do something like a “mock interview” in class, but am not sure how. I remember two things you did. One was a short demo, where you asked one of the students “Where are you from?” and it showed, at least on that occasion, that there can be more than one answer and more to the answer than expected, even for such a simple question. (Ha! Like how could you be sure this guy wasn’t just going to say, “Toledo. Never moved.” Actually, the question here lies more in your attitude as the interviewer, which I guess is the answer. To be open to the variations possible in the response, to encourage them. So, I guess that’s a roundabout way to demonstrate interviewing technique.) I also remember us interviewing you, on your interest in computers. If I do that, do I have one person ask the questions? Or did the whole class get into it? Yeesh, I’ve never been interviewed myself before! I guess being the interviewee, I can at least control how much time we spend at it, and what direction it takes. Any suggestions?

It’s sort of “cute,” seeing the difficulties some of the folks have with this whole qualitative data collection process: the concern about losing control over your research, about getting the “wrong” answer. I hope I’m teaching them something.... I still will not grant that I “like” this thing, but I’ll reserve final judgment for the end of the course.

From Howard Becker 19-OCT-1995 Subj: RE: Another hurdle

Dear Shirah:

No, your account isn’t overdrawn yet, although I’ll probably have a little less time now that my own fieldwork class has begun.

What I used to do with the interviewing thing was take on some character—I used to do a Chicago bus driver, but got too far away from what I originally knew about it, and now in Seattle it’s meaningless to people—and let them interview me about my work or whatever. What I’d do is have one student start, give the student a reasonably hard time at first (not be too forthcoming, answer every question that could be answered briefly briefly, etc.) and then open up at some point and give them clues to follow, things they should pick up on. I’d let the first student work at it for two or three minutes, then say someone else take a turn, etc. I wouldn’t put anyone on the spot. Periodically I’d step “out of character” and ask why they had asked something, what they had in mind, or make a suggestion about something they had done that could be done differently, etc. It was always a lot of fun.

Zen, yes. It’s the main thing, just go with it, find a handhold somewhere, something you can work with, and see what you can get them to do for themselves. It’s the doing it themselves that’s crucial, I think; they can listen to you all they want (and all you want) and write it all down in their book, but they won’t know anything until they use it themselves. That’s the only way the class works.

From Shirah Hecht 23-OCT-1995 Subj: RE: Another hurdle

Hi, Howie.

Thanks for the response. You have way more chutzpah than I do, if you don’t mind the phrase. I was surprised by how you told me you did the mock interview, but it made sense. It avoids a lot of the trouble I foresaw in doing this. Maybe on my second time teaching this course.... But, hell, if I run out of things to do Wednesday, we just might do it.

Things are going pretty well, I think. That is, we’ve filled the 2.5hours each time. The funny thing is that I’m getting an enormous amount out of this course (excluding the pre-class funk I go into each Monday). Maybe it’s because I’ve “done the thing.” That is, I wouldn’t have gotten as much out of these readings before doing the research I’ve done myself. In some ways, I’m a slow learner. But that idea also fits with the general tack of getting them to do things, so that your questions and the answers you might come to make sense. But it’s also probably a function of the anxiety level at which one reads these things when one is responsible for teaching it.

I hope your class is going well.

From Shirah Hecht: 1O-NOV-1995 Subj: quick note


Well, it’s almost a wrap. Three or four more class sessions to go. I just wanted to share one more thing with you. (You may ask yourself: what did I do in some other life to deserve this fate?) The last two class sessions, I’ve been going through some physically trying stuff myself, having nothing to do with the class. As a result, I felt I had to be much more calm, not push too hard. And, I don’t know if it’s because of this or just because it’s half-way through the semester, but those seemed to be the best sessions we’ve had. I felt I was more direct with them.... and with less “noise” of “what should I say or do now” going on. after the first of these two sessions, I left the class thinking, “I’m going to miss these guys.”

So, now I have a lot more grading and reading to do, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel.

From Howard Becker l1-NOV-1995 Subj: RE: quick note

Dear Shirah:

Probably the reason the class is going so well is a combination of everything you mentioned. One thing about a class like this is that you get a buildup of esprit and morale, as they realize they have actually done it and are doing it and can do it; it thrills them and that’s thrilling for the teacher. Then, too, if you lay back, for whatever reason, they respond to that and fill the gap and that makes everything more lively. And, as you said, having done it they can now talk in a knowledgeable way about the choices and problems.

My class is going well too. I don’t know why. I am really in a groove and do improvisations that seem wonderful to me on whatever they bring up and, on good days, get them to collaborate in the improv. For instance, the other day one of them, who is studying a bunch of refugee punks from Eastern Europe, gave me some notes in which she described two of the people as the “kingpins” of the group. So I said I knew what she meant vaguely, but how did she know they were kingpins, what had she seen to allow that conclusion? She was embarrassed at having used a “vague expression,” but I said no, that was good, but now we should use it to move on. There was about a half hour of the two of us working out what she had actually seen that justified the expression, and then there was the question of how much of that was actually in her field notes, and why not? And I could say, repeatedly, that the point of such Monday quarterbacking was that now, when she was with these people, she would not be able to help seeing all these things we had just discussed and noting them down. Etc. It was really fun.

From Shirah Hecht: 20-NOV-995 Subj: misc.


I’m rereading notes you sent me on the class, getting re-educated by them again. I fear I didn’t always “get there.” (And, hey, I’m not done yet.) But, maybe in response to that fear, I wanted to report to you some of what I told my students.

I remember you once saying, there’s always one student in class who asks the question you need to have asked, but I didn’t think it would come in this form, or hadn’t had the experience I thought you meant when you said that....

So, one asked, he’s an avowed Marxist who wants to study on-campus Black student activism, seemingly frustrated with what we were discussing about doing surveys: “What is the one thing that’s most important here, about doing surveys?” The timing couldn’t have been better; he must have been reading my mind. I said, and I hadn’t ever thought this or read it put this way before: that it was to avoid “playing” to the easy audience, the people you know will agree with you and whose opinions you think you “like.” I left out what would have summarized it well: because the researcher lives and dies by “variation” and if you get rid of that, you’re dead in the water. His response was great: he dropped his head, as if in shame or deep realization.

And then, on the same topic but maybe a later class session, a student asked me about my own dissertation survey, “What would you have done differently?” In the context of our discussion, I listed a couple of things. But I also said that I can see that I would do them differently, because I have some distance on it now, and can see it differently. Implying that that will always be the case, time giving you a different perspective on the work.

It may be paranoia, but it seems to me I’ll always have one student in class who has particular problems with me. It feels like passive-aggressively (or aggressive-passively) playing out larger problems with teachers or authority or other people in general in this setting. That’s one out of fifteen. So, the question is: is that the proportion (a) in the general population (b) in graduate schools (c) in Sociology grad schools or (d) is my sample skewed? :-)

From Howard Becker 21-NOV-1995 Subj: RE: misc.

Dear Shirah:

Last thing first, while I remember it: I don’t know what the proportion of these passive-aggressive types is, but my experience is that whatever the size of the class there is almost always one, usually not more. It’s like it’s a slot that has to be filled. I once had a student who left the class after I just didn’t respond to all her attempts to get me to do what she wanted, which was to spend the class discussing what various authors had to say about field work. When I said I thought it was more important to do some so that you would know what anyone was talking about in such discussions, this student said she didn’t really feel comfortable doing field work. I said I didn’t either but I did it anyhow. After a while I stopped trying to persuade her and told her if she didn’t want to do it I really could understand and that I certainly didn’t think that everyone had to do it or know how to do it, but that this class was about doing it and not about talking about it. So she stopped showing up for class, which was OK with me, I gave her an OK grade.

The rest of what you said sounds fine to me. As you know, I talk all the time about my own experiences, it’s the one thing we can talk about with assurance, and my only rule about that is one that it sounds like you followed, which is to tell the exact truth as far as you can remember it. Students, I think, appreciate being told the truth, whatever it is; I have often told students that I had a cold or whatever and felt lousy and if I was a little snotty in my remarks on their notes that was why; or that sometimes I did things in the field for no good reason; etc.

From Shirah Hecht 29-NOV-1995 Subj: Need mantra


Now that I’m well into this Zen-teaching business (and happily so, I’m not complaining), I need a mantra. What to say to myself when I worry that I haven’t made all of these students happy. Or when I find out I haven’t made any of them happy (evaluations are next week). Something like, “I can’t make you all into researchers, much less happy. OMMM.” Or “It’s not my fault you didn’t learn anything and sociology is hard to learn. OMMM.” I have the feeling those aren’t the Zen way. I really am looking for suggestions, though the answer is probably buried somewhere in your previous advice to me.

I really appreciate that you do this teaching thing for a living, even if I am not so enthralled with it myself And I’m not just kissing up now, since I have no real motivation to do so.

Your comment on the slot being held for the one passive-aggressive type was great. I even know who the second person is in the class who would have taken the slot on a given day if it had not already been filled.

Two more sessions to go....

From Howard Becker 30-NOV-1995 Subj: RE: Need mantra

Dear Shirah:

Bernie Beck [who teaches sociology at Northwestern] had a nice solution to your dilemma. He said that worrying about whether you were satisfying all the students or teaching them all something useful or doing a good job for all of them or any version of that was a version of the “White Man’s Burden,” which is to say it puts all the responsibility on your shoulders. But it doesn’t belong there. I always figure that I’ll do my best, not try to persuade people who don’t want to learn, for whatever reason, what I could possibly teach them, help the ones who want to learn something in whatever way I can, and be glad if anything comes of it at all. If you’re dissatisfied, it means you expected more than the situation could produce for you, and the easy solution is to revamp your expectations, while thinking about what could be changed to make it work better.

Does that help?

From Shirah Hecht 13-DEC-1995 Subj: Now this is fun


Now this is fun. I’m hiding out in my “academic office space,” having told my “real job” that I needed time off to grade papers. Of course, eventually, I really do have to grade those papers.... But first to let off some steam. I just held the last session of class and this is my “reflection” paper on doing this class, to the one person who most helped me get through it.

It was a tough road. I’m not convinced I did as good a job as I would have liked. I know I made it harder on myself than it had to be. The biggest problem is that I lack confidence, which makes it harder to lead well, no matter whether in a Buddhist or more structured style. It makes it hard on me and hard on them, and I don’t know if I can do anything about that. You would think I would outgrow this, but I’m now well into my thirties (and I won’t tell you how many therapy sessions....) and I see no sign of it abating. Not only is it not going away, I seem to find more situations in which to let it show.

It’s hard to feel I’ve read enough.

It’s hard to feel I can let people go, do research, and think I can make a class based on that.

You, Howie, are very hard to emulate. The most useful thing (well, one of the most useful things) you ever said to me had something to do with: well, of course you haven’t read as much as I have; I’m a lot older than you are. No one told me that before. But, wanting to be as good as I maybe can be with a lot more work, I am not aware of what I have accomplished, if it’s short of my ideal goal.

I have a specific question. Do your students sometimes take your comments on their work as criticism they don’t want to hear and try to argue you out of it?

From Howard Becker 13-DEC-1995 Subj: RE: Now this is fun

Dear Shirah:

What a sweet, thoughtful letter. I really appreciate it. Don’t forget that I got something out of our exchanges too. It’s why I like teaching too, you know; I learn so much from students.

The thing about self-confidence is that the one thing you can’t ignore is that you actually did it this time and the floor didn’t fall in, you didn’t disgrace yourself, most of the students got along OK, alright a few kvetches kvetched, but that’s their nature, etc. In other words, you did it and it worked. This proves (in math they call this an existence proof) that it can happen, since it already did.

I don’t remember students ever complaining about my criticism. But that’s probably because I almost never criticize. What I do instead, and it does work much better, is tell them what others will say if they do this or that, and ask them what they think they should do about that. And I am, of course, willing to listen to the argument that they don’t have to listen to those people (because, after all, there are people I don’t listen to or to whose criticisms I pay no attention).

I don’t ever try to get things to be as good as possible, especially not in class, because there is too much that isn’t under my control. I do my best, but I set some kind of limit beyond which that’s it, enough already.

It actually sounds, for all your complaints, like the class went reasonably well.



Becker, H. S. (1967). Whose side are we on? Social Problems, 14, 239-47.

Becker, H. 5. (1972). A school is a lousy place to learn anything in. American Behavioral Scientist, 16, 85-105.