Saturday, September 19, 2009

On Teaching "Truths"

I have taught in my current position now for nearly 17 years and was an adjunct instructor for a number of years before that, so eventually I hope to show some signs of improvement, if I am learning in the process!

Meanwhile I do enjoy the classes I teach each semester-- I am tempted to say "my classes" out of habit, but I am very aware that with each class, we work together. I try my best to encourage environments where people own their own processes of learning, and we participate together.

But more than that, given the nature of what I bring to such classes-- disciplines about people, society, social issues, social change-- I am also aware of the challenge I face not to step in as "the expert" with "the truth" to impose on people for better or worse. In fact, when it comes to what I bring to the classroom, my students don't need to know my opinions about the issues and concerns that are the stuff of the anthropology and sociology I teach. In fact, knowing this sort of thing too soon in a class can short circuit the fundamental aims of just about any class, where instead my aim is to encourage and invite people to think critically and carefully for themselves.

This doesn't mean that I just want everyone in a class to become comfortable with their own opinions. As I often note in the course of a semester--the social sciences I teach are not just about opinionating; they are instead about learning to find and use the tools and resources that help to understand our world more clearly (if not more objectively). Some might call this the learning ability of "critical thinking."

I will not pretend to have no opinions about things, and in the right contexts I will be more than happy to share them. Not every context with colleagues or students calls for this suspension of sharing what I think. Certainly most exchanges call for openness to full dialogue (listening and sharing, with an openness to offering one's own and hearing others' beliefs, ideas and opinions). But the classroom--for the most part--is the place where it is most important and most apt to say, from a teaching perspective, ", isn't important what I think. What do YOU think about this... and how do you come to this understanding...and have you considered X, Y, and Z... and have you read...." These are not prompts in order to prove that a participant is wrongheaded or misguided, but to bring the tools of the wider, deeper disciplines of understanding we as teachers have trained in, to students who may not have ever used them before.

Classrooms are not opportunities to subject impressionable and/or captive audiences to efforts of ideological indoctrination. Even when it comes to things that for many teachers seem like solid "truths"--the theory of evolution comes to mind from my own background--my role is not to convince people that these are somehow 'true,' but instead to help people understand what they mean in their own contexts---what evolution for example means in the context of scientific principles and understanding. Whether a person then believes such things or not is a whole other matter.

My role in teaching is more like the librarian than the political campaigner or the sports fan. I know a bunch of wonderful librarians, and I even know many of their political (and even sports) views; but when I am in the library, they challenge me to use the library--the whole library--critically and carefully, not just the sections that deal with the Red Sox, or a single political party, or a particular political stance. This is what I aim to do, as well, in the context of any classroom I enter.

Colleagues outside the classroom, with whom I eventually share my own personal views may not understand this divide and my commitment to it. Especially if our views differ dramatically (or even when they seem similar), they may believe that I carry my own personal agenda into the classroom. But most teachers I know share a common commitment to this approach to teaching; most work carefully to maintain a respect for their students' opinions and values even as we invite them to investigate and explore the thinking and learning tools we bring to the classroom from our respective professional disciplines.

In my own case, the disciplines I teach challenge me nearly every day to maintain such consideration; the "hot button issues" of the day inevitably surface in sociology; in Contemporary Social Issues we in fact have to deal with all those topics we've otherwise learned are not the stuff of polite family/dinner conversation; in anthropology the core topic of evolution provides the context for much of the discipline, and a recurring discussion about its implications for those who come from particular religious traditions. And I certainly have my own opinions about many of these things. But my opinions are not what I want students to focus on or explore. More precisely, I don't want students to simply focus on any opinions, except maybe to ask the more basic questions about where these come from, what are they based on, and what are the tools, practices and resources we can find that will help us to understand thing more critically, carefully and in their complexity.

Just as I need to develop such respect in my approach to teaching and learning in the classroom, I also need to demonstrate the same respect on another level, in my approach to colleagues in relation to students in classrooms where they teach. When I begin to see colleagues in light of things outside the classroom--outside of their direct professional role as teacher-- it is not my place to shape (or misshape) impressions with their students. "I wouldn't go in that library if I were you. Those librarians believe the world was created in seven days!" is just as out of place, professionally, as things like "Be careful with that instructor--he supported Ron Paul in the last election." "...she voted for George Bush..." "...he is against the war in Iraq..." "...she is for the war in Afghanistan..."

In our own respectful, collegial dialogues with those we have the privilege to know personally and professionally, part of this relationship is the challenge also to consider and respect the careful and important boundaries we may need to maintain at the same time. These are important professional boundaries with participants in the classes where we teach, with those we counsel as advisors, with those we serve as administrators, and with those we interact as the greeting faces of the institution. Just as the individual instructor (advisor, clerk, administrator etc.) is challenged to be careful not to impose her/his personal views on those she/he serves it is an equal challenge not to deliver these second or third hand to someone else's students (advisees, colleagues).

Over the years it has been apparent that teaching and learning have become cross-functional in many institutions and many have replaced so-called silos with relationships and responsibilities that cut across departments (academic and otherwise) disciplines. In this it is important to be open to the new possibilities of flatter organizational structures and shifting boundaries. At the same time, we need still to pay attention to aspects of professional boundaries that may continue to enable us to challenge each other in respectful dialogue while serving as teachers and counselors with those who come to us to learn.

Effective classrooms will be spaces where people feel safe to expose what they do or don't know and risk the challenge of exploring new ideas and understandings. They should be safe places where people feel free to engage their differing views, beliefs and abilities, and where what goes on in the class does not become the source of ridicule or judgment outside the classroom. This valuable safety of the learning environment needs to be respected both from within, in our teaching approaches, and from without in how we respect one another's boundaries in our collegial relationships.

It is a whole other branch of this discussion, but it is the quality and integrity of this kind of learning environment we aim for, that is likewise protected by such fundamental values as
academic freedom and the privacy of anyone's routine access to information. These are not merely etiquette, or somehow prvileges that are given to us by some higher power, but instead are at the very heart of what we are about as intitutions of learning.

We learn in dialogue. We make ourselves vulnerable to one another as we share our differences, and we create environments together where this (ideally) becomes a source of growth. As I have often said in many a class, if we can't do this here in an institution of learning, where else in our world will this be allowed to take place?