Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Teaching


If you are a teacher, you have an obligation to conduct yourself professionally in the classroom. For me, the following are crucial to teaching well and being respected by students.

First, I go through the trouble to memorize the first and last names of every student by matching their names to their faces. This can mean memorizing the names of up to 150 students per semester. As much trouble as it is, it produces great benefits. Students respect you for knowing their names, they don't mess around with you as much, and it earns you credibility.

Second, I tell the students explicitly of how aware I am of the diversity of their views, and that I will be presenting a variety of views in as competent a manner as possible. I always tell them that I am well aware that there are very religious and anti-religious people in the room, and that there are very liberal and very conservative people in the room. I then tell them that I will teach them from a perspective that is informed by that knowledge. This approach stands in contrast with pushing a hard ideological line with students, which will often frustrate even those students who share the teacher's ideological leanings. Teaching ethics or religion courses offers many opportunities for fairness. Any time that I offer a view that I, as an ethical professional, know to be more a function of my opinion than of any objective consensus in the field, I alert my students of that fact and tell them what an opponent would say in response to me.

Third, I permit highly controversial discussions about politically incorrect issues in my class as long as nobody resorts to personal attacks. It is perfectly possible to keep the peace in such situations, as long as one has a little practice and experience. The first few times can easily get out of a teacher's control, but we owe it to the students to permit them to discuss emotionally-charged issues freely and openly.

Fourth, I teach so that the students are not entirely sure of my views on any of the controversial subjects of the class. If they have any suspicions, it is my goal that those students would say that this teacher taught in a way that was never disrespectful or marginalizing.

Fifth, if I want the students to write an argument or defend a position, I permit them to defend any side of any position they please, even those that I find abhorrent, such as that 9/11 was an inside job. We must never permit ourselves to grade on the basis of the student's opinion, but rather on how well the student goes about defending that position.

None of this is incompatible with having passionate opinions about issues outside of the classroom. Teachers have every right to blog, to organize, and to act in behalf of any cause they like. It is important that they can switch gears and enter the sacred space of the classroom with the appropriate reverence. Students will never hold your views against you, even if they disagree with you outside of the classroom, if you have made clear to them your respect for the space that you share with them.

In light of all of this, I would like to recommend to you that you support the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is a group that keeps an eye on us professors in order to make sure that we don't force our baggage onto our students.

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