Monday, August 27, 2007

My Teaching Philosophy: Trial by Ordeal Edition

The infamous professor whom I use on this blog and in my life as a sort of anecdote farm to illustrate Very Bad Things also had some admirable ideas that I have adopted in my teaching: he always admitted when he didn't know the answers to our questions, and he at least stated that a student's thoughts/beliefs/opinions were always welcome in his classroom, no matter how offensive. That second part was absolute nonsense of course, he wanted to be free to be as abusive as possible to his students, particularly those in simultaneous possession of vaginas and thoughts, and felt that a "truly free academic environment" would best serve his needs. But, theoretically, an open forum -- nobody gets punished for thinking in my class -- approach is a good thing. (And here I thought that the only things I brought with me out of that department were a two-year refusal to take any course in which the instructor of record was a male of any professed political stripe, and a much clearer understanding of my mother's anger.)

Because it's harder for me to see that which is admirable in a person I find loathsome, I have concluded that being honest about the limits of one's knowledge and encouraging free expression in one's classroom (albeit with a decidedly less venomous tilt) are probably as close to really good teaching ideas as I'm going to get, and so I have implemented those ideas in my teaching.

However, I have some problems Infamous Professor did not have, and so I have found over time that I have had to define the boundaries of the open forum a bit better. Yes, I am aware that adding boundaries to an open forum creates a closed, if broad, forum. I justify this choice by citing my duties as an educator to help all students expand their abilities.

Many students, when faced with an open discussion, fall into befuddled silence. This does not help them. A little structure allows them to feel safe enough to speak, and so I try to provide just enough structure to make a safe space.

Boundary #1: "You must say something that has some relevance to what we're doing/reading."

Others start spouting nonsense just for the joy of spouting nonsense, and refuse to defend their nonsense because "she said I could think whatever I want." This is also thoroughly unproductive, and very intellectually lazy. Why so many people think "free speech" means "unchallenged speech" is really beyond me.

Boundary #2 is "You have the right to say what you think. This does not include the right to silence all disagreement."

My students very often have opinions and ideologies that they have adopted, unexamined, from others whom they admire. That's normal for their stage of development, but is also something they need to start moving away from in order to take on adult roles in the world. I am a fact-based kind of person, and so I require that my students give me opinions based on something other than their general reading of the Zeitgeist in their neighborhoods, things they wish were true because that would totally support their specious arguments, and "my dad/friend/clergyman says." The arguments can stay, and even the Zeitgeist and appeals to local authority can stay in the arguments as long as they aren't alone, but false facts are not allowed.

Boundary #3 is "You are entitled to your own opinions. You are entitled to your own interpretations. You are not entitled to your own facts."

And finally, a problem that is the antithesis of Infamous Professor's design in adopting " a truly free academic environment;" my interpretation of a free exchange of ideas means that there is no bullying of any kind, so that all group members with ideas may feel free and safe to present those ideas to the group. Unfortunately, like Infamous Professor, there are a lot, like A LOT, of young people who harbor great quantities of causeless hatred in their withered little souls, and immediately upon hearing the phrase" free exchange of ideas" think "open season on the people I hate." While I acknowledge such ugliness does exist in the world, and even encourage students to discuss the uglier urges we may have as humans through my choices of literature, I cannot allow unfettered hate speech in my classroom. Even if it didn't offend me personally, and it does offend me, I have ethical and legal obligations as a teacher to make my academic space a safe space for all students, including and perhaps especially the students that others may target for hate.

Boundary #4 is "No bullying."

Students who are prone to hatefullness really resent boundary #4, because in their minds the only free space is a space where they are free to drive out those whose biological sex/ gender identification/ skin color/ religion/ political bent/ ethnicity/ tax bracket/ shoe choice they do not like.

That was a pretty long setup, I know. Bear with me.

This summer, my intensive literature course was "Introduction to American Literature" (Because I never ever ever get to teach something I would be really great at teaching. Never. It's against the law.). This class had the slightly narrower theme of "the creation of the Other in American Literature," because it was a summer class and I needed one theme that I could hop all over American Literature with, but mostly because once you've read The Wanderer and The Wife's Lament, and royal Vitae (Alfred, Charlemagne) and anything by Gerald of Wales, you start seeing the creation of "the Other" everywhere. And then you read Puritan sermons, and millenarian sermons, and Melville's Metaphysics of Indian-Hating, featuring an indian-hater par excellence, which is almost exactly in Saint's Life format, and some later stuff too, and lo! there are socially-constructed Others there as well. And then you sift through all the witches and demons and brown people and communists and weirdos and poor people and they start to look a lot like those filthy Saxons and Vikings and Welsh and peasants and witches and demons that you've seen before.

Long Story which I typed in but Blogger lost on me -- I had a Holocaust Denier in my class. Unlike 99% of my students, all of whom came into the class with some horrifying assumptions about life and people, he did not rethink his opinion when presented with corrected facts ( like pictures of Auschwitz), but rather became more virulently hateful. Boundaries 3 and 4 clashed with each other, and true facts plus his logic made him more of a bully than ever, and I had to choose the least destructive route, which was to make school safe for most of my students, and stop calling on the one.


Ancrene Wiseass said...

Ay yi yi.

I've never had a Holocaust denier as a student and truly hope I never will.

And your analysis of the pitfalls surrounding "open discussion" is right on target.

kdegruy said...

Glad to hear you survived the teaching experience from hell. I have nightmares about stuff like that - only in my nightmares, I myself spiral rapidly out of control and resort to raising my voice, threatening court martial, and/or physically removing students from the room (or physically trying to keep them from leaving, depending.) I then wake up convinced that underneath it all, I'm more riot control than teacher and I have picked the wrong career path.

HeoCwaeth said...

AW, there is something truly bizarre about looking into the face of a person who thinks the closest humankind has come to perfect evil was a good thing. And, no, I don't wish the experience on you either.

Actually, I was trying to avoid this very thing when I chose not to add German certification to my undergrad education. I love the German language, and the people, and much of the history, and I knew there were people out there who would dump all of that in favor of the 10 years of horror in the middle of the last century. And that pisses me off.

Come to think of it, similar logic catapulted me out of the church when I was still very religious. The ugly people had taken over.

What makes you think I didn't raise my voice? In all honesty, though, I don't think this was the teaching assignment from hell. It might have been that if I were Jewish, or if I didn't have the "cred" of a German major and extensive German travel behind me. Because, when I said "I will not tolerate hate speech in my classes" the kid couldn't respond "You just hate Germans." He had to engage me. As it turns out, I had to disengage for the benefit of my other students, but it wasn't exactly hellish. Which is not to say that it wasn't chilling.
I've forgotten what I was talking about. Do you remember?

Must not have been important, then.

If you decide you truly are more riot control than teacher, may I suggest the eighth grade? Because that's pretty much the job description for eighth grade teachers.