I’m almost never satisfied with my performance as a teacher. Partly because I’m something of a neurotic perfectionist (which I’m pretty sure is an actual personality disorder according to the American Psychiatric Association); but also because the very nature of the teaching/learning enterprise–instructing, hearing, processing–is necessarily partial and incomplete. We can’t ever say all that needs to be said; our students can’t ever hear all that needs to be heard. Failure is built into the process.
But I press on, even in the midst of my ongoing personal failure and the built-in failure of the enterprise, striving to teach in ways that not only challenge intellectually but also engage morally and spiritually. I would expect this to be so even if my subject matter was chemistry or Chinese history, for it is always the case, with teaching that seeks to be transformative (and what other kind is there?)–that what is taught is “not simply that which [the teacher] has come to know, but how she has come to know it and the difference this knowing makes.”1
One thing that is important for good teaching is the necessity of cultivating an aesthetic. The challenge, as Jean Bethke Elshtain puts it, is to establish “an ethics of respect for the views of others, for the possibility of keeping multiple perspectives in play and in mind and, at the same time, focusing those perspectives, drawing out themes and imperatives, refusing to bring an artificial unity to the whole.”2
This is not the same as saying “anything goes” or “one opinion is as good as another.” It is, rather, the hard work of creating a hospitable learning environment that can also make critical judgments and careful discriminations and which can, maybe most importantly, be open to surprise–to the possibility that knowledge and insight can come from unlikely places and when we least expect it. A rare gift that teachers and students should never take for granted.
As pretentious as it may sound, I think of my engagement with students over a semester as a journey of mutual transformation. I expect them to be different when the course is complete and I know that I will be too. But pedagogy in institutions of higher learning is often conceived of and practiced as a kind of “strategy for avoiding our own conversion.”3
“Think for yourself,” is modernity’s mantra to the bewildered student. But we don’t really believe that. We want our students to think like us; that is, we want them to come to understand that reasoning and critical thinking are skills learned over time as we/they are habituated into the discursive practices of a particular discipline–Chemistry, say, or Chinese History.
We want, in other words, to convert them. That is the aim of our art.
1. Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Teaching as Drama” in Schooling Christians: Holy Experiments in American Education” (Eerdmans, 1992), p. 55
2. Elshtain, p. 55
3. Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known: Education as Spiritual Journey (Harper Collins, 1993), p. 40