I am surprised to realize how much difference age makes in my teaching routine. Generally speaking, the older I get, the less students pay attention to me – and, admittedly, the less patience I often have for them. This doesn’t apply to the students who have a particular interest in my areas of specialization, nor to the ones whose ambitions I applaud and encourage. Those students are as devoted as ever. But it does seem to apply to the casual students, the ones who take my general theory courses to fulfill requirements. I can guarantee that I’ve been using many of the same first-year theory pedagogical routines for sixteen years now, and far from them feeling stale, I think I’ve refined them and perform them with more energy than ever. But it doesn’t matter – when I was in my early 40s, a little younger than their parents, the casual students saw me as a role model, potential ally, and someone to identify with. They laughed at my jokes, hung on my every word, and appealed to me for help when the older professors were unsympathetic. Now, just noticeably older than their parents, I’m already an old man to be politely smiled at occasionally and then turned away from. They take their personal problems to my younger colleagues, which is admittedly a blessing. I have to confess to a reciprocal decline in sympathy; excuses I’ve heard 75 times have a blunted impact, and I’ve grown better at predicting which ones will not fulfill their promises. Worst of all, this semester, for the first time in my life, I’ve had to turn disciplinarian. I’ve always encouraged creativity in theory class, emphasizing the freeing effectiveness of the rules once they’re understood rather than imposing them as a restriction. But – and as students do go through generational changes, I can’t be sure of the cause and effect – I’m finding lately that rather than joining me in creativity, they take it as license for rowdiness and distraction, and I have to clamp down. Teaching becomes a chore. I am unusual among my friends in that I’ve never come to mind teaching the fundamentals of theory every year, but lately I’m beginning to fantasize about turning it over to someone else.
When I think back about it, few professors I studied with were as old then as I am. Colleges went on a massive hiring spree in the expansive ’60s, and some of my favorite teachers were only ten, even eight years older than I was. I gravitated toward the younger faculty then partly on the basis of stylistic sympathies, though one of my favorite mentors was the reverend Theodore Karp, who taught in a whisper barely audible past the first row, and revealed the wonders of 15th-century music to me. Aside from him, I don’t remember having much experience of professors over 50. But with the difficulties of retiring in this economy, older professors are only going to continue to predominate.
As a colleague of my generation said to me last week, “When I was forty my students wanted to be me. Now they respect me, but they don’t want to hang out with me.”