Adam Spellmire in doctoral regalia delivers a speech at a podium.

Gladly Learn and Gladly Teach

2016 GSAS Doctoral Hooding Student Address by Adam M. Spellmire, Ph.D. recipient from the Department of English

One of my favorite lines in The Canterbury Tales comes at the end of Chaucer’s portrait of the Clerk. Chaucer describes the Clerk as a professional student, thin and poor, a young man who loves books. To support his study, this Clerk relies on others for money—on his friends, family, and wider community. But Chaucer leaves it deliciously unclear just what the Clerk offers in return for this support.

What is the point of all his study? So think graduate students. But the part I especially like comes at the end of the portrait, when Chaucer closes his description with the line, “And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”“And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” In typical fashion, Chaucer doesn’t judge his character, doesn’t say if the Clerk’s willingness to learn and teach gladly makes up for being a bit of a parasite. But what a marvelous idea, teaching and learning gladly.

And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.

Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales

I’ve been lucky enough to know many people at Tufts who gladly learn and gladly teach. I admire that. What exactly allows someone to teach and learn gladly? I’d like to reflect on that question because graduate school prepares its students for more teaching and more learning. How does someone do those things well, even gladly? One simple answer, I’ve come to understand, is that you must get outside yourself, must think about your students and the material before yourself. And while I hope my education here has helped me near that goal, I have a brief story about what not to do.

I was teaching for the first time. The course was English I, first-year college writing, over in Braker Hall. I began by asking my students what makes for good writing. I wasn’t sure if they would talk to me, and I was elated when the students offered answers.

I wrote them on the board: good writing involves clear organization, thorough research, a main idea, and so forth. I thought, “I’m teaching! I can do this after all.” Then someone mentioned grammar, and I wrote on the board, G-R-A-M-M-E-R. I was teaching English, remember. I looked at the word, looked at my students, who looked back at me (probably they were just sleepy: it was 9:30 in the morning), then I looked back at the word. I was fairly sure I had misspelled grammar, but instead of fessing up, I erased it and wrote “punctuation,” which isn’t exactly the same thing. Then, without explanation, I moved on. Unbelievable.

Don’t do this, in case you’re wondering, which you’re probably not. I had managed to confuse my first crop of students after only about seven minutes. At this point I was not gladly teaching, and I don’t think my students were gladly learning. What was my problem? Well, I had many problems, but if I had been concentrating on my students and their education rather than on myself and how they saw me, things would’ve gone much better. I would like to think that if something similar happens the next time I teach, I’ll simply correct my mistake, and thus avoid remaining traumatized seven years later. Teaching and learning well involve focusing on someone and something beyond yourself. It’s not about you—a simple lesson but one I need to keep relearning.

Today I wouldn’t for moment say that I’m an expert on Chaucer or anything involving the Middle Ages, despite having written a dissertation on fourteenth and fifteenth-century English literature. But thanks to an array of generous students, colleagues, and teachers here at Tufts, I think I am nearer to being someone who would gladly learn and gladly teach. Thank you.

Spellmire won the Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education award in 2012, and was a recipient of the Tisch Library Fellowship in 2015. His dissertation is titled “Unfinished Quests from Chaucer to Spenser.”