What's fun to teach?
It is easy to imagine that university teaching gets more fun, the more advanced are the students that you are teaching . . . third year undergraduates more rewarding than second years, second year undergraduates more rewarding than first year, and postgraduates more rewarding than undergraduates.
Now, I would be the first to claim that it is often truly exciting sitting down with a PhD student who is trying to say something really new, and going through their work, word by word. And it's also huge fun to pick one of your own specialist subjects and to engage third year student in its intricacies too.
But all the same, for me, there is something just as exciting (and in some ways even more difficult) about teaching the first year students. For one thing, you make an even bigger difference to the way they think about the subject. I hope that this isnt the power trip it might sound. But to take students from A level and to push them quickly up to the next (more vertiginous) styles of thinking, and to help them acquire the skills that will enable them to get their own teeth into the subject . . . well that's a pedagogical pleasure that's hard to beat.
This term I am going through Plato's Crito with two small groups of our Part 1a "Intensive Greek" students, in 8 sessions (we have to skip quickly over some of the simplest bits of Socratic dialogue .. the "Am I right, Crito?" "Yes of course you are, Socrates" lines ... to concentrate on the big and difficult passages of argument). Some of the students only started Greek from scratch a few months ago, and the fact that they are reading Plato unadulterated at all at this point is a tribute to their intelligence and hard work, and one must reckon to our teaching too.
I see my job as not only to take them through the Greek ("why is that in the optative?" etc etc) but also to keep them interested in the text. Partly I do that, I confess, by sharing my mixed reactions to the dialogue: on the one hand gob smacked admiration for the sheer cleverness of it all, on the other decided antipathy to the figure of Socrates (and his arguments) as portrayed by Plato. The Crito is, as you probably know, set in 399 BC in the prison in Athens where Socrates is to die, and the question that sparks off the discussion is whether Socrates should try to escape (as his friend Crito advocates, and would clearly be possible) or whether he should sit and face death as sentenced; but this leads on to wider considerations of a citizen's obligation to obey the law.
We see Socrates bulldozing the unfortunate Crito with his usual assassination style of dialogue, and his usual off-putting elitism, which Crito never punctures. "If we are an athlete," Socrates says at one point, "we dont listen to the views of the many about our training, but the views of a specialist trainer; so equally when it comes to morals/ethics and the soul, we should not listen to the views of the many but those of the expert." "Hang on," we want Crito to say, "may be morals are not comparable to athletic training . . . " But the poor man never does.
But what's also fun about this kind of teaching is that each time you read a book carefully with a group of students, you always find something new in it that you've not spotted before. Re-reading Crito this year and last, I've been so struck by Crito's belief that money can always buy you out of trouble. In the first few lines of the dialogue we discover (a bit euphemistically) that the only reason he has been let into Socrates cell so early in the morning is that he's been giving the guard backhanders. And all through the book we find him planning to use his cash to get Socrates out, and worrying about losing it.
Is that really how the wheels of the Athenian democracy were oiled, we wonder.