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Why I Teach 25 January 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Teaching.
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The new semester has begun, and as is my habit, I have come back to the question of why I do this. Is it for love or money? In many ways, at a so-called “state teaching university”, where I teach a heavy load in a program that basically services general education (that means: for all intents and purposes, no majors and no grad students), my professorial experience differs from many colleagues, even at my own university. My pre-hire expectations have taken a beating over the past couple years on the tenure-track, both in terms of what my own intellectual life means and what it means to be a teacher in higher education.

I read somewhat glumly PZ Meyer’s post this morning about why he teaches biology. It is interesting to note the different paths that he took as a biologist than I as a social scientist: In the social sciences, you necessarily see yourself as a teacher as well, whereas PZ didn’t see himself as a teacher until after he started his tenure-track job and was slammed into teaching. PZ’s post led me to a couple others, including the original meme on Free Exchange on Campus, which in turn led me to this brilliant post from Dr. Crazy, a community college literature professor.

Reading Dr. Crazy’s post, I was amazed at her (is she a her?) articulation of the main projects of teaching a broad range of students and what they can get out of studying literature, which most of them don’t care about. Although I’m a sociologist, I teach in an interdisciplinary program where I actually have to teach history and humanities in addition to sociology, including a massive freshman level, two-semester course on American culture. In some ways, I feel lucky that I get to branch out into the humanities, into poems and literature and even some music that I love, to get students to engage in questions of meaning that I may not get to in otherwise straight up social science course. In other ways, I regret not having sociology majors, people with at least a minimum level of interest in what I have to offer, people who are sort of junior scholars in my field, exploring the world that turned me on when I was in my early 20s.

So I teach more or less four classes a semester of students who aren’t engaged (in general; there are exceptions) or who don’t care about what I’m teaching. They are there for the basest of instrumental reasons: To fulfill a requirement. One of my jobs, then, is to convince them to care in some way, to entice them to engagement. On good days, I succeed; and it is really a rush. On mediocre days, we get some excitement going and I’m content. On bad days, we barely make it through still liking each other.

Over the first two years of my tenure track, I have slowly been developing a new, more grounded in my actual teaching experience, raison d’apprendre.

a) The Value of a Liberal Arts Education. I have found first that my personality still doesn’t allow me to give up my ideals about education or the material I’m teaching. That is, I discovered last fall that I just cannot give in to the instrumental culture of general education and what my students call “getting a job”. I don’t mean to say that I will spend my career “kicking against the pricks”, as the New Testament says; but rather that I still have to keep my grasp on why I do what I do, even if it doesn’t align with the reasons the students come into my class. I have discovered that I still believe in education as a means to improvement, that knowledge and learning really do afford the chance for students (and myself) to become better people. I still get massive pleasure out of learning, discovery, inquiry, and even argumentation. I still believe that functioning democracies sorely need educated citizens. So on the first day of class this semester, I started by telling the students about the values that drive me to teach, the values that bring me to them each day and why I do what I do. I hope to have started a discussion with my students that, in some way, will continue through the semester, about the value of a university education beyond “getting a job.” Idealist? Yes. But I’m not yet ready to leave behind those ideals. I was relieved that my students actually wanted to talk about this and then excited by the discussion; it seemed to reveal (and this could be wishful thinkingn on my part) that the “getting a job” rationale actually weighs on them and distracts them from learning.

b)  Describing the World as It Is, Part One: Complexity. Here I dovetail with Dr. Crazy and, I’m sure, many other professors. One of my chief goals as a professor is to teach a set of thinking skills. I hear a lot of professors talk about “critical thinking”, but in some ways I have found the way we talk about this as professors to have been detrimental to other aspects of teaching. I have colleagues who argue that as long as their students can “think” at the end of the coruse, they have succeeded. What concerns me is that the process of critical thinking requires to actually have something to think about. The skill does not exist without substance. So first on my list is teaching the students to observe the world and to be able to describe it, as best they can, as it is. This involves teaching them to think stochastically, especially in the social sciences, where any social question is so intricately connected to tens, hundreds, even thousands of other phenomena, that explanation requires a suppleness of perception and agility of language. This is, for me, complexity. I want my students to learn to see multiple causalities and multiple and contradictory effects of any given phenomenon and to be able to explain them.

c) Describing the World as It Is, Part Two: Truth. If you’ll excuse a gross oversimplification, my students come to me either with deeply embedded naive relativism or a deeply embedded sense of Eternal Truth. Both sides of this (false) dichotomy are a challenge to teach. Those who believe in Eternal Truth also usually believe that they already know it. That results in a sometimes intractable teaching situation, where there is no way into the student’s head. On the other hand, those with the Kumbaya naive relativism have two problems that contradict each other but to which they are blind: on one hand, they refuse to judge other cultures, societies or individuals, because everyone is “equal”; on the other hand, they are deeply moralizing and constantly judge people who aren’t like them. It’s an odd contradiction. Ironically, the naive relativists actually treat their world view like an Eternal Truth, so at the end of the day, they all have that same problem. My task is to crack through their assumptions about whatever values they are bringing to the classroom vis-à-vis truth and to get them to start to see truth in a completely different way.  This is a task that I never complete in a given semester, and for most of my students, I think it is a process that will take them well into their adulthood to fully grasp. In some ways, real-life experience will unconsciously lead them here if they’re open to it. But hopefully something we do in class together will move them toward seeing truth as being both still important and real, but also being always contingent and a process. William James said that truth was a verb, not a noun; it’s something that unfolds in time through experience, through learning and interacting; it is not something that can be possessed and held onto once and for all. The reason this is so difficult is because I’m trying to teach them a seemingly contradictory thing: first, the truth is contingent and highly situated and that it emerges out of interaction with the umbworld (the social and cultural environments); but second, that the truth as we know it at any given time is inextricably connected to how we live our lives, especially how we formulate our values and how we act in the world. Just because we may learn something tomorrow that changes truth does not mean that we do not or cannot act today on what we know right now. Indeed, the realities of life necessitate action, and action is always driven by values, and values are already based on the current state of the truth. At the same time, they have to understand that what they think of as true today, might change tomorrow; that what is true for them, may not be true for anotehr human in another time and/or place. My hope is that learning that truth is situated will bring a humility and a care to their declarations of knowledge and to their value formations; and that seeing that they nonetheless have to  act in the world will bring an urgency to getting the best truth possible in any given situation.

d) Value propositions. Arising out of a redefinition of truth comes an awareness of where human values come from and in turn a consciousness of the valuation process. I want to teach students to be aware of their values, and to be able to see where exactly they come from, then to take their best knowledge of the truth at any moment and formulate the best possible value propositions. In otherwords, what I’m trying to teach them is that values are not things-in-themselves, but are always propositions. As such, they are always open to evaluation and scrutiny.

e) Argumentation. Part of what I’m trying to teach is how to make solid arguments in the most basic format: Claim, Reason, Evidence. This goes for all kinds of arguments, from substantive (what, facts, data), to critical (how, why), to interpretative (what does it mean) to evaluative (what is it worth). My hope in the classroom is that building from complexity and truth, as I defined them above, students will be able to make lucid, grounded arguments and at the same time that they will be able to analyze and evaluate the arguments of others.

f) Social. In the end, I have to admit that one of the key reasons why I teach is because I love the students. (With the exception of a few bad eggs and a couple of assholes here and there, that is). I love that time of life when the world is before you and you are free to explore. The trick of my job, however, is that I teach a student body that is driven mostly by the instrumental rationale I discussed above, so I have to awaken that curiosity and openness, that I see as their right to enjoy, in them. It isn’t easy; it can be frustrating; and I fail as many days as I succeed.

Comments

1. C - 25 January 2008

Your students are lucky to have you.

2. Sean - 25 January 2008

This is something I’ve thought a lot about ever since I got my master’s and started considering teaching math at a (community-) college level. Would I be any good at it? Would I like it? Would it would drive me to open my veins within a week?

Teaching as an adjunct faculty member at a Utah community college (since I have no desire to give up my library career) is certainly a different experience from being a tenure-track professor at a California state university, and of course teaching mathematics is a bit different from teaching sociology, especially teaching a broad, interdisciplinary American Culture course, but I have the same kinds of concerns, goals and ideals that you’ve outlined here. I just question my ability to achieve those goals, given the limited scope of a freshman math course; my potential students’ preparedness, openness and teachability; and my ability to tolerate, connect with and love my students.

And somehow I’m supposed to sell myself in my resume and cover letter as a confident, experienced and valuable teacher. Ha!

3. Dr. Crazy - 27 January 2008

First, I really enjoyed your post, and I’m flattered at your praise of my post. Second, I should note that yes, I’m a she (grin) but also that I’m not at a community college but rather at a regional comprehensive (though I’d say my experience has more in common with people who teach at community colleges than with those who teach at research universities, in terms of student population and the contours of the job).

4. Todd - 27 January 2008

Oops! Sorry Dr. Crazy. I don’t know where I got the idea you were at a community college. So we are teaching, it sounds like, at similar institutions.
cheers
t

5. Steve - 28 January 2008

A really terrific post, Todd. Like everyone else who doesn’t teach, I often wonder why/how y’all do it.

6. Cindy B. - 24 May 2008

Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on teaching. It is so easy to become mired in the negativism that often accompanies this occupation that hope for the students and their futures is misplaced. Although I am a Jr. High teacher, many of the insights you have included can be adopted to this level. Like you, I love to teach and while my failures often outnumber my successes, the satisfaction I have from touching their lives is enough to keep me going.


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