This fall, for the first time during my years at Macalester, I had the opportunity to be back in the classroom for more than a cameo appearance. I owe this good fortune to Professor Patrick Schmidt, who kindly offered to team-teach with me a first-year seminar entitled Civic Ideals and Higher Education in America. Even more kindly, he took it upon himself to design the syllabus, advise the students, and grade the papers—that is, to do all the hard stuff. I got to show up and enjoy myself.

Macalester students are a special pleasure to teach, in part because of what they know, but mostly because of who they are. Like many institutions, Macalester asks all incoming students to take a survey (administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA) designed, in the words of its creators, “to learn more about what happens to students when they attend college by looking at who they are when they begin.”

The survey results tell us that Macalester’s incoming students, when compared to their peers across the country, are far more likely to place importance on “helping to promote racial understanding,” “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” “helping others who are in difficulty,” “improving [their] understanding of other cultures,” and “becoming a community leader.”

For a teacher, stepping into a classroom filled with 18- and 19-year-olds with this view of the world and themselves is about as good as it gets.

This is not to say that all students at Macalester see any particular issue in the same way. Even within our group of 16, there were passionate and persistent disagreements about virtually everything. Frequently I found myself wishing that those who typecast our students as thinking uniformly, or wrongly believe that the college encourages only a limited range of views, could observe a class and experience the reality of ideas being tested through debate and intense questioning.

My return to the classroom after a hiatus of nearly two decades was also a revelatory personal experience. Simply put, I am a different person than I was when I concluded 15 years of teaching Dickens and Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf. Then I was a parent of young children, I was about twice as old as the students in my classes, and I spent a good portion of most days thinking about literature. Now my children are young adults, I am about three times as old as the students in my class, and I spend my days thinking about college finances, fundraising, Title IX, and a host of other nonacademic matters. To the current version of me, that earlier version seems familiar but rather distant—like a relative one hasn’t seen for a while.

These changes no doubt affected my teaching and my classroom persona in many ways, but what was most noticeable to me was my greater level of comfort with, to quote Keats, “being in uncertainties.” Aging, I have found, is in part a gradual process of discovering the depth and breadth of what one doesn’t know, and that awareness shaped the way I approached the material and discussions in the course. Almost no question we considered— What is the purpose of college? Where are the limits of free speech? What is the value of the liberal arts?—has an easy answer. My earlier self might have found this frustrating or uncomfortable. My current self found it natural, since I live daily with an absence of clarity and consensus.

Whether this made me a more or less effective teacher now is impossible for me to say. Twenty years ago, I suspect, I was more organized and focused, more of an expert in my subject matter. (I still have hundreds of pages of detailed teaching notes on everyone from Aeschylus to Zola.) Now I am more at ease with spontaneity and more open to changing my mind in class. Since there is no single way of being a good teacher, I like to think that both Rosenberg 1.0 and Rosenberg 2.0 have their merits. Students can learn and profit from the expertise of a faculty member; they can also learn and profit from watching a faculty member, or a college president, wrestle with the process of discovery and reveal his or her ignorance or doubt. Ideally every student’s Macalester education will include exposure to both forms of learning.

Bottom line: I had a great time. I was reminded that teaching (even without the grading) is hard work but also, with students like ours, about the best work there is.

BRIAN ROSENBERG is the president of Macalester College.

January 22 2016

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