Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Purpose of Teaching

As I've mentioned before, I teach. I'm a professor, so strictly speaking teaching is some kind of official fraction of my job, but as everyone who's ever taught anything knows, teaching takes up a disproportionate amount of one's psychic energy.

When teaching is great, it's great, and when it sucks, it sucks. When it sucks, you sometimes wonder, "What is the purpose of this"? When it sucks, you start to think, you know, the smart students in this room could probably just discuss the text over beers, without me, to the same effect, and the, uh, less smart students aren't going to get anywhere not matter what.

So, what is the purpose of teaching? My university actually has a policy about this. "The purpose of teaching," it says, "is to facilitate learning."

When I read that I heard Butthead's voice in my head, going, "Uhh, OK."

And indeed, if you need to lay something out, this is reasonable.

Lots of stuff happens, though, in classrooms, that makes you not sure if this is the whole story, makes you wonder if maybe there's something else going on -- something, I don't know, a little less cheerfully agnostic.

My students find it almost impossible to sit still and read or write quietly for any length of time. Or to listen attentively for more than a few minutes. And, you know, I don't blame them. I was a disaster at these activities well into adulthood. It's one reason I majored in math.

I can't see any way of getting better at these things except practice. The more you do them the easier they get. Since presumably we "lovers of democracy," or whatever we are, are better off when our citizenry can read and write and listen, I figure it's part of my job to simply force students to do a certain amount of these things.

The students seem to think so, too. They revel in the mythology of the classroom: that I am the stern task-master; that if I am "generous" and "kind" I will push back deadlines a day or two; that as task-master I will not only penalize them with bad grades but will punish them with anger for failing to do what I ask.

So fine; I'm happy to comply. But honestly, this is way more like being an aerobics instructor or a mom than like being a "learning facilitator."

There are also times when even university teaching verges on indoctrination. I teach philosophy. It's part of the framework of what we do, at least in the humanities, that everyone has a voice, not only a right to their own opinion but a certain obligation to have one. To state it. To support it by appeal to considerations others will find worth listening to.

It sounds so basic, but when you teach that way to students not used to it, it seems like its own, weird, non-negotiable demand.

For example, I sometimes teach courses on moral problems -- abortion, animal rights, pornography, etc etc. Sometimes I have students who've been taught all their lives that the only possible approach to these problems is a religious one.

They can see right away that "God said so" is not an appropriate classroom discussion point. I try to explain that since everyone has different views about God, we have to leave that aside to discuss these problems in a way that everyone can share. Your point has to be one that anyone can appreciate the force of, regardless of their religious convictions.

Sometimes when I think about how that seems from the opposite point of view, I feel the force of how radical it is, and how committed we all are to it, and how we in the university treat it as utterly essential to being a complete intellectual and cultural person.

If I'm in a good mood, I think I'm instilling, by example and requirement, the best of enlightenment values of freedom of thought and open debate. If I'm in a bad mood, I think I'm indoctrinating the youth.

Either way, it's not really facilitating learning.

1 comment:

Captain Colossal said...

It's funny; my first semester of law school seemed so much about the drama of the thing -- all those teachers name checking The Paper Chase, and the mythologizing of a tweedy and intellectually rigorous past. I kind of loved it.