August 27, 2012

On People: Dennis Aguinaldo, UPLB Professor

With a unique teaching style, a strong sense of social justice and a passion for simple, yet elegant writing, Professor Dennis Aguinaldo is the quintessential UP literary genius. He is that teacher who pushed you harder, dared you to think outside the box and inspired you to write differently. Read on to find out what inspires this writer, teacher, advocate and father.

Tell us something about yourself.
I'm a father of two, husband of one, and teacher of a lovely, unruly horde.

Tell us a weird quirk of yours.
I developed a habit years ago. When I'm sitting still or in transit, my mind (like most minds) drifts back to memories. Perhaps a few of us can direct this train of thought, and since I am not of that blessed few, my mind suddenly takes me to bitter places (people shouting, awkward gestures, missed opportunities, a set of plates my kid games caused to break on the floor, the betrayal of a friend). When this happens, I wince. How do I describe this: I wince violently, with my whole body. Like 2 seconds worth of an epileptic fit.

How did you start your career as a teacher?
I'm a professor at UPLB. I would like to say 'these days' or 'currently', but honestly it hurts to think that life could drag me to become some other thing in some other place.

We have a strange way of saying we have imitated our parents or inherited their profession. We say it's ‘in the blood’: politics is in the blood, medicine is in the blood, sculpture is in the blood, and so forth. My mother taught elementary, it limned her life to the point that I can't think of her apart from her work, not even now, years after her retirement. Instead of saying teaching is in the blood, I would rather say I took after my mother. Even when I was young, I tried teaching things to my brother and sister (how to make an impression of a comb by placing a sheet of paper over it and rubbing a pencil over the sheet). 
I learned that I wanted to be a teacher, that I could maybe do it for a living, how "it's possible, I can do this forever!" when I was reporting in front of a class during my third year of college. I remember that afternoon, the wooden chairs of Palma Hall, my teacher in a pink dress, the subject was Panitikan, and everything falling into place. I was (still am) a stutterer, had stage fright since early elementary, but despite the bad case of nerves, I carried with both report and discussion smoothly, with composure, a measure of agility. But this is from an internal perspective, I mean the fireworks were internal, a secret eureka, and from that moment on, a small music hummed and never stopped. 
I did not teach immediately after graduation. Another job came to me, and—since my younger sister and brother were still studying—I considered myself lucky that a job would come to me. Naturally, I threw myself into it. I had to do other things in other places for about three years before I could speak before my own class. And it would be another year after that before my teaching demo at Los Baños.

What subjects/courses do you teach?
Literature! Multiple exclamation points literature! I have been teaching HUM 1 (AH), the basic literature course for all forms of UPLB student. I have handled world literature, canon, mythology and folklore, science and technology in literature, critical and creative writing, poetry. This semester, it’s prose styles.

Tell us about your typical day at work.
I like it when I walk to the office, it's downhill from the house, an easy stride. I arrive an hour or two before class. There are things to sign, things to frown upon, things to get off the table as soon as possible to get to the good stuff. I review the students’ papers so that I can integrate their perspectives and insights in the discussion. If the lesson is tricky—or if the students are—and I'm not confident I can pull it off, I come in earlier so I can have time to write. Yes, I write before classes, usually in order to plan, but sometimes poetry comes out, or the seed of a story. I think it's the rhythm of pen on paper that's more important than any of the words that gush forth.

Then it’s off to class, to quizzes, writing activities (it’s their turn to write!), lecture, and recitation. These things should be interconnected, organic, at least that’s the ideal. One thing should feed the other. 

After that I’m off. Or there would be consultations, a chat with one of my fantastic DHUM colleagues like Irma or Emman, Chris or Moi. Or my division-mates. A committee meeting too, at times, those worrisome affairs where sometimes you end up with two hours of having done exactly nothing but listening to people mouth off.

At home, there would be readings to choose from, papers to check, and slides to prepare for the auditorium class. 

How would you describe your teaching style?
My style is bureaucratic, there’s no better word for it. It’s humorous at times, but only as witty as the bank teller will permit, or that sly guy processing your driver's license. It's a gruesome, mechanical thing—no, not unethical, not usually anyway, but all the same I don't like the look of it.

I would rather speak of what my system aspires to achieve, and perhaps how much the system fails before its ideal.
Now for me, the best part of a class is that rare, fierce moment when a student truly learns from another student and all you did was to clear a space for their spirits to meet. As a teacher in the face of this moment, you feel supremely affirmed and utterly irrelevant at the same time. 

Very rare though. It’s possible that an entire semester would pass without such an encounter. Therefore, I am now working on ways to increase these moments.

What's the best thing about being a teacher?
The pay.

Who or what inspires you and why?
My own teacher in HUM 1, the late Dadufalza, once told us that a teacher is more valuable than a doctor. A physician takes care of the body, but the charge of the teacher is the human mind. I can't help but believe this, though I try not to because it tends to make me feel self-important—as if I did not have enough of my own conceit to deal with! Self-importance does nothing to advance the interest of your students. This is another thing I learned from her: your goal as a teacher is to render yourself obsolete.

My old teachers inspire me though I shall refrain from quoting them all at length. Let me list a few names though: Mrs. Cuevas, Mrs. Cruz, Mr. Peñamora, the late and dear Mr. Vic Racaza. My departed teachers, Prof. Monico Atienza, and Dr. Normita Recto. That's a list from Kinder to Masters—my God, all these treasures, my keepsakes! 

And I have yet to speak of the lessons from my parents.

What kind of student were you in university?
Insecure, given to daydreaming. Very low-key. ‘High-strung’ was the word my friend Alisher used. 

Name one book you would recommend and why.
The Brothers Karamazov. Because it talks about the allure and peril of pure types, of being purely physical and passionate, being purely intellectual and calculating, being purely spiritual and transcendent. And because you asked about who inspired me and my first answer was Dadufalza and this was the book she taught me and there was this one time when she scolded me in class, and . . . there, I wish you had seen it: I winced.
What was the best thing that ever happened to you on the job?
I met my wife was the best thing that ever happened to me on the job.

What was the most memorable moment you have had as a teacher?
The most memorable moment is too embarrassing to recall, so is the second, so let me relate the third most memorable moment. I think it’s more of an event, if you’ll excuse my liberties with this particular question.
Now if it’s one of those lucky semesters, then at the end of it a student would come to you, sometimes with gift, but more importantly with a message saying that you had dealt a good hand, taught a fine lesson, left a mark.

Once there was a student who came to me, this handsome young man, and he handed me such a note as the one described above. However, he gave it to me barely a month after the classes had begun! Maybe we were just two weeks in. The note praised me for something I had yet to deliver, for a few hours’ worth of first impressions. Maybe it was the timing that bothered me, maybe there was also something in the message, but the whole thing disturbed me, I had no idea what to do with it. Maybe because I ‘overthunk’ it—as my friend Amy usually accused me of doing—this note became a heavy thing in my hands, like a small animal asking for something in a garbled, half-secret voice.

But there was no question mark anywhere in it, you see. It was courteous, strong and upfront, yes, but still it was only a plain declaration—a cut of notebook paper folded twice—one that praised my teaching as well as my person. I asked my colleagues, even my wife, and yes there were jokes, but mostly they said I should just take it like any other compliment, smile, move forward. I was also tending toward carrying on, so I went on as if nothing was asked of me, and delivered in class only what I customarily delivered.

Some meetings after that, I noticed that the student began to flop. He began missing classes, then he stopped attending altogether. But he was intelligent, a very perceptive young man as revealed by both his speech and his writing. I even saw him perform on Philo night, a song by Bamboo. Later, my wife would have him in her class. He had already been dismissed, but he was making a comeback. My wife would not agree with that word ‘comeback’ because he seemed to her somewhat spaced out in that class, always looking outside the windows. That semester, my wife went on maternity leave to deliver our first daughter so she passed that class on to the substitute. I don't know if he graduated eventually or if he left the university without graduating.
Nor do I know if I could have done anything for him when he was still within my semester of responsibility. Could I have responded differently? Would I have effected any change? (But is that not the line of thinking that lead to megalomanias big and small—could I have changed one person?)

Now, whenever I feel that I have overindulged in the pride of some achievement or other, I call his whole name to mind to tell myself how little I know of teaching, of the vanity and arrogance of this position, of my carelessness even at those times when I believe myself most mindful.

This is his gift to me, that young man who was tall and lanky, white-skinned, whose name is at the tip of my tongue, never to be released. I have a feeling it will stay with me for as long as I am allowed a life, this gift with which I may diminish myself whenever my head swells beyond its bounds.

What can you say about the education system in the Philippines?
Says Perros, "I have never heard a fisherman say that he loves the sea." If I reach retirement age, I shall let three years pass then attempt to answer this question. Perhaps even then I shall fail. It’s just too close. How can you describe a face pressed against yours?

What message do you have for people aspiring to be teachers?
We all come to it from different paths. Something in me itches to say that you should only attempt to teach if you've had great teachers, those you would be proud to emulate. Helen Keller would agree. I believe this is the common denominator a scholar would find from a possible qualitative study of all the better teachers: that they looked up to giants.

However, since this is conjecture, let me allow for the negative path, that somewhere in the country was a good youth who failed to receive a decent teacher—not a single one!—and was thus forced by some spirit or inchoate genius to learn by eliminating their vices, the brutalities of their neglect, the fundamental flaws with which they scarred and stunted minds. If such a youth should someday succeed in beating a teacher out of herself, I would pay dearly for her lessons.

Therefore, this. Learn from whatever good or evil has been given you, all the small things, the expansive gestures, the way your teachers dreamed inside the class, inside your mind. Lacking these, you have no alternative: batter your soul against the world. Teach yourself.

How do we contact you?
dsaguinaldo at ymail dot com

Any websites you'd like to share?

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Listening to: Midnight Light by Haley/Kaskade
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